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Dissolving
from Death: The End of Self-Improvement

Dissolving is the opening chapter from Joan's book Death: The End of Self-Improvement, published by New Sarum Press, a book about aging, dying and living.


I shall soon be quite dead at last in spite of all.

—opening line of Malone Dies by Samuel Beckett

I began writing this book in Chicago almost two decades ago. When I was in my fifties, I moved back to the city where I was born to be with my mother, then in her nineties, in her final years. I stayed on for several more years after she died to be with my mother’s oldest friend in her final years.

During my eight years in Chicago, I went through menopause and began to experience my own aging in a new and more visceral way. Several close friends died, two went into nursing homes, all were growing noticeably older. Eventually, the year I turned sixty, I moved to Oregon. One of my Zen teachers, Joko Beck—one of the clearest, sharpest people I’d ever met—slipped into what seemed to many to be some form of dementia, behaved in strange and unexpected ways, and eventually died. My main teacher, Toni Packer, suffered a more than decade-long, painful, debilitating illness culminating in death. My first lover from college died. I got cancer. I turned seventy. On a global scale, there was talk of the sixth mass extinction being underway, and humanity itself seemed to be flirting with death in the form of climate change or nuclear holocaust. And so, rather naturally, I found myself writing about aging and dying, that time of life when everything falls apart. Paradoxically, I found that what I was really writing about was living—being alive now.

I also began to notice that aging and dying share much in common with spiritual awakening. Both involve a dissolving of old identities, the disappearance of future time, the end of the known, and letting go of absolutely everything. Aging and dying, like awakening, are a great stripping process, a process of subtraction. Everything we have identified with gradually disintegrates—our bodies, cognitive skills, memory, ability to function independently. Eventually, everything perceivable and conceivable disappears.

Am I saying that nothing survives death? Actually, I’m suggesting that there are no separate and persisting “things” to begin with, either to be born or to die. All apparent forms—people, tables, chairs, atoms, quarks, planets, dogs, cats, consciousness, energy—are mental concepts reified and abstracted out of a seamless and boundless actuality that does not begin or end, for it is ever-present Here-Now. And whatever this boundless actuality is, it seems to have infinite viewpoints from which it can be seen, and infinite layers of density, from the most apparently solid to the most ephemeral and subtle. Ultimately, there is no way to say what this indivisible wholeness is. No label, concept or formulation—whether scientific or metaphysical—can capture the living actuality.

No one knows for sure what happens after death, and I may be surprised; but I assume that dying will be just like going to sleep or going under anesthesia. Conscious experiencing—my movie of waking life and the experience of being present—will vanish as it does every night in deep sleep or under anesthesia. And, as in deep sleep, I won’t be there to miss myself or my movie of waking life. The fear of dying only exists during waking life, and only as a fearful idea. In deep sleep, the problem—and the one who seems to have it—no longer exist.

The more closely we explore this whole compelling appearance that I call the movie of waking life, the more we find that it has no more substance or enduring reality than a passing dream. We might think of it as a play of the universe, a dance of consciousness, a marvelous and deep entertainment, with no meaning or purpose except to play, to dance, to enjoy and explore and express itself, and then, to dissolve—back into that unfathomable mystery prior to consciousness, subtler than space, in which nothing perceivable or conceivable remains.

In my view, what happens after death is a flat earth question. Worrying about what happens to us when we die is like worrying about what happens to us if we fall off the edge of the earth. People used to worry about that, but their fear was based on a misunderstanding. Just as there is no edge to the earth, there is no actual boundary, no edge where life begins or ends. The things we are worrying about are all conceptual abstractions, artificially pulled out of the whole. Like the lines on a map dividing up the whole earth, birth and death are artificial dividing lines on an indivisible reality.

Just as no wave is ever really fixed in any permanent form or separate from the ocean, no person is ever actually a fixed or solid “thing” separate from the totality. This unbroken wholeness or unicity is ever-present as the still-point of Here-Now, and ever-changing as the thorough-going flux and impermanence of experience. This wholeness cannot be found or lost because it is all there is, and there is nothing and nowhere that is not it. Nothing stands apart from it to “get it” or “lose it,” and it never departs from itself. Stillness and movement, immutability and impermanence, mind and matter, are simply different ways of seeing and describing this indivisible actuality.

Of course, there’s no denying the everyday reality of death. Every living being is a unique and precious expression of the universe, a unique point of view, a unique and unrepeatable pattern of energy. When someone we love dies, they are gone, never to return, and one day, this life we are experiencing right now will end.  In so many ways, death is the greatest wake-up call there is.

Someone sent me a wonderful cartoon for my sixty-fifth birthday. It pictured a long line of cute penguin-like creatures waddling in single-file across a vast plain that extended as far back as the eye could see, and at the front of the line, the creatures have arrived at the edge of a cliff, a very steep precipice—and the captions reads, “Man, I guess it really was about the journey and not the destination.”

When the future disappears, we are brought home to the immediacy that we may have avoided all our lives—the vibrant aliveness Here-Now, the only place where we ever actually are. Whether it is the personal death that awaits each of us, or the inevitable planetary death in which the earth itself will be no more, or even the end of the entire known universe, death is the single reality that most clearly informs us that the future is a fantasy and that the person and the world and everything that we have been so concerned about are all fleeting bubbles in a stream.

When we believe that a single, fragile, vulnerable, impermanent bubble is all we are, we live in fear of death. And yet, paradoxically, at the same time, we long to pop the bubble of apparent encapsulation and limitation and dissolve into the vast, unlimited wholeness that we seem to have lost, the no-thing-ness where all our problems and concerns vanish into thin air.

We all know, intuitively, that this bubble is not all we are, nor are we some kind of lost soul trapped inside it. The wholeness we long for is actually all there is. The bubble has never been a solid, separate, independent, unchanging thing. By embracing the actuality of life just as it is, something shifts. And surprisingly, the more closely we tune into the bare actuality, the less substantial it seems, and the more mysterious, unresolvable and extraordinary it reveals itself to be. Pain, whether physical or emotional, becomes more interesting and less frightening, and even if fear arises, that too becomes interesting rather than fearful. Everything reveals the jewel in ever-new ways.

We often have the idea that dignity means being in control, not being overwhelmed by emotion, not screaming or crying in pain, not losing control of our bowels, not vomiting on ourselves or peeing in our pants, not losing our minds, and so on. Most of us are conditioned to feel that bodily functions and emotions are a bit dirty or unspiritual and best hidden away. At the very least, they must be controlled.

As we age, and for some people much sooner in the wake of an illness or a disability, all this begins to crumble away. We may start having falls or losing our cognitive skills. We may not be able to function independently anymore. We may need help, sometimes with very intimate tasks. We may lose bowel control, perhaps in a crowded restaurant while eating Sunday brunch with a large group of friends—that happened to my mother in her last year of life. If you’ve been with people who are dying, you know that there are usually body fluids involved and all sorts of messy things that don’t fit our limited and unreal picture of dignity. We may end up in bed, in a nursing home, in restraints, in terror, screaming—this happened to a friend’s father. I have an ostomy bag now, following an anal cancer, and I’ve had some pretty messy moments while managing the bag one-handed—I lost my right hand before birth. Are all these events undignified? Are they humiliating? Or are they simply part of life?

This book is not about getting control and staying young forever, nor is it about avoiding or denying any of the messiness and painful loss that aging and dying and living inevitably involve. This is not a self-help book that tells you how to stay active and feel perpetually young, nor does it promise any kind of afterlife “for you” through heaven or reincarnation. Rather, this book is about fully embracing death, and therefore life, wholeheartedly and relaxing into the total disintegration and loss of control that growing old and falling apart—and living and loving and being awake—actually entails.

Our usual approach is to tiptoe around the word death, replacing it with euphemisms, as if speaking the word itself would be too raw, too disturbing. Growing old is a natural and unavoidable fact of life that we are constantly trying to deny, hide, or cover up with wishful thinking, hair dye, Botox, erectile dysfunction drugs, cosmetic surgery, euphemisms, and inspirational stories about age-defying, ninety-year-old super-heroes who are still sky-diving and having hot sex. All of this promotes the popular notion that we can always be young and healthy and at the top of our game. I’m all for staying fit, challenging ourselves, enjoying life to the fullest, and having a positive attitude toward old age; but in the final analysis, growing old is one long surrender, letting go into a process of subtraction and unraveling, a demolition project in which things fall apart and every form we know and love is lost. It usually involves some degree of physical pain, and it isn’t always pretty or easy.

Old age is an adventure in uselessness, loss of control, being nobody and giving up everything. That sounds quite dreadful when we have been conditioned to believe that we must be somebody, that we must strive to get better and better, that our lives must have purpose and meaning, that above all, we must be useful and productive and always doing something and getting somewhere. This book is here to suggest that the loss of all that is actually not bad news. It may even be immensely liberating!

This book explores growing old and dying—and more importantly, being alive—both through the lens of my personal story and from the larger, impersonal perspective of what might be called nondual spirituality. And when I use the word spiritual, I don’t ever mean spirit as opposed to matter, or spiritual as opposed to secular. Spirituality as I mean it is a perspective that sees all of life as sacred, and by sacred, I mean worthy of devotion, full of wonder, inconceivable and ungraspable. The kind of spirituality that has attracted me is about direct experience, not belief or dogma, and it is focused on Here-Now, not on some imaginary future. This is the perspective you’ll find in this book, and it includes everything from vaginal dryness to politics.

Many so-called “nondual” or “spiritual” books sound so abstract. The author seems to have crossed some finish-line and risen above the human mess once and for all, and the reader wonders why he or she can’t seem to do the same. For years, I labored under the delusion that “I,” this person called Joan, was somehow lacking, not quite all the way “there” yet.  Of course, as a person, we are never perfect in any ideal way, and any “there” that we imagine one day arriving at is a fantasy, for nowhere actually exists outside of Here-Now. Having known many spiritual teachers up close, I know for a fact that I’m not unique in having human imperfections.

In the end, we’re all frauds and liars, magicians and tricksters, pulling the wool over our own eyes and playing peek-a-boo with ourselves; and we’re all Zen Masters in thin disguise as well. After all, the one behind all the masks is the One and Only, the ever-changing, dancing emptiness that is no-thing and everything.

My life as the Joan character is essentially no different from any other life because, when you boil all our seemingly very different lives down to the basics, the central themes turn out to be quite universal. At the same time, every snowflake, fingerprint, cloud formation, person and moment is utterly unique and unrepeatable. I am showing up intermittently as a particular human being and simultaneously as the vast presence being and beholding it all. I am both the ocean and the wave, and in this, I am no different from anyone else. I speak in this book as both the ocean and the wave, and my perspective moves freely between relative and absolute, which, in nonduality, are understood to be “not two.”

All our stories are ultimately dreamlike fictions, however relatively true they might be, and all the characters in this story, including the main character, “Joan Tollifson,” are mirage-like phantasms. At the same time, every character is as real and miraculous as every snowflake, and our stories are every bit as much a manifestation of this unfolding as ocean waves and cloud formations, all of it the cosmic play. Imagination is a powerful and creative force, every bit as real as so-called “material reality,” which may itself be nothing more than a dreamlike imagination of consciousness.

There is something that draws me to stories, and I find that all stories are my story, for in this holographic universe, each of us contains the whole. I love movies, plays, TV shows, novels, gossip. The best stories open the mind and the heart. They entertain and delight. They shake us loose from our moorings. They reveal new depths, insights and possibilities. Of course, some stories—the conditioned ones that repeat over and over in our heads—create the illusion of bondage and separation (“I’m a loser, I’ve ruined my life, I’ll never get,” or “You’re a loser, You shouldn’t have done that, You’ve ruined my life.”).  So, stories can function as both an avoidance of life and a deep and intimate engagement with life. I love the stories that take us to places we’ve never been, the stories that wake us up, the stories that invite us to see something new, or to see more deeply. I also love waking up from stories. I love silence and stillness. I love the absence of stories. Like a child, I love blowing bubbles and popping them, building sand castles and smooshing them, going into the movie theater, getting totally absorbed in a story, coming back out again into the larger movie of waking life, and then sitting down in meditation and dissolving into wordless presence. It’s all beautiful. And that kind of play is exactly what this book is.

It weaves personal narrative and meditative explorations together, telling a story and then erasing it, dispensing the dharma and then revealing the messiness of the drama behind the scenes that is usually hidden from view in most spiritual or nondual books. I write in this way simply because I do. I find it interesting to go back and forth between the abstract and the particular, the personal and the impersonal, the relative and the absolute. Something in that tension, that juxtaposition of construction and deconstruction, creation and erasure, intrigues me. The ultimate discovery is that there is no actual separation between form and emptiness, purity and impurity, sacred and profane, spiritual and material, perfection and imperfection, nirvana and samsara, undivided boundlessness and its expression as a unique person or an unrepeatable snowflake.

My mother once told an ER nurse that my books are about being who you are. This can be heard on many levels.  It can mean being the limitless Here-Now. Or it can mean fully playing our part as the character we are pretending to be in the movie of waking life, playing that part wholeheartedly, without restraint or apology, without holding back, without trying to be someone else instead, being exactly who we are in this moment with utter abandon, “following your bliss,” as my mother would say. I think my mother intended “being who you are” in both of these ways when she said it, the undivided wholeness and the fully-lived character.  Maybe they are actually one and the same. Maybe that is part of the great discovery that is called awakening, liberation or enlightenment. And maybe the other part of that great discovery is that the fully-lived character and the undivided wholeness aren’t ever what we think they are. Maybe the fully-lived character is exactly what we actually are in this moment, not how we imagine we should or could be, if only. Likewise, maybe Ultimate Reality or nirvana or supreme enlightenment is not a distant memory or a future hope, but rather this present moment, this aliveness that is endlessly appearing and disappearing, inhaling and exhaling, dying and being born—right here, right now, just as it is.

This book is definitely not a seven-step guidebook to perpetual bliss or to never growing old. It is rather an invitation to let everything fall apart, as it does anyway, and as it must for anything new to emerge. This falling apart is a waking up from the obsessive concern with self-improvement and self-preservation, and a release from the fear of disintegration, imperfection and death. Perhaps in this exploration we will discover together that our worst fears are not really as terrible as we had imagined, and that what appears to be an obstacle or a hindrance is actually the gateless gate and a jewel beyond all price.

-- copyright Joan Tollifson 2019 --

This is the opening chapter from Joan's book Death: The End of Self-Improvement, published by New Sarum Press. It is copyrighted material. You may quote a small passage as fair use with appropriate credit, and you may link to this page, but do not re-post the entire chapter without permission from both the author and the publisher. Thank you!

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