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Why Do We Have Paths and Practices?

If “reality is simple” and “this is always already it” and “everything is it, just as it is” and “there is no one to be unenlightened or to become enlightened,” and so on, then why do we have spirituality, meditation, nonduality meetings, retreats, satsangs, the Work of Byron Katie, the Headless Way, the Sedona Method, the Yoga of Radiant Presence, Buddhism, Advaita, books like the ones I write, and so on? Why bother with any of this?

One obvious answer is suffering. We are deeply conditioned and habituated to think of ourselves, and therefore to feel, that we are separate, encapsulated, vulnerable entities living in a fragmented outside world, threatened by others and by forces beyond our control—and the bodymind IS indeed vulnerable. We suffer from uniquely human forms of anxiety, depression, failed relationships, and life-threatening addictions. We seem to live in a world of wars and school shootings. We long for a way out of our suffering, and we naturally want to heal what is hurting and fix what is broken. We are looking for a cure, and yet, as most of us eventually notice, that very search itself becomes a painful addiction. What to do?

We have glimpses of another possibility. We have tasted, however briefly, the beauty that is here, the joy, the love, the ease of being, the peace and well-being that can be present even in the midst of painful circumstances. We’ve seen it reflected in certain people and in their lives, and we’ve touched it within ourselves. We are drawn by our True Nature, by our deepest possibilities, by an evolutionary pull, by what is simplest and most obvious and easiest to overlook. We are drawn to explore and discover the nature of reality.

In his wonderful book Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness, Jon Kabat-Zinn writes about the apparent contradiction between practices, such as meditation, and the absolute truth that there is nothing to attain and no one to attain it. As an example of how meditation is both a path and at the same time pathless, Kabat-Zinn points out that you cannot attain your foot for it is already part of you, but at the same time, the foot of a great dancer “knows” something that an ordinary foot does not, although in their fundamental nature they are the same. He writes that: “Meditation is a way of being, not a technique… Meditation is not about trying to get anywhere else. It is about allowing yourself to be exactly where you are and as you are, and for the world to be exactly as it is in this moment as well…More than anything else, I have come to see meditation as an act of love…a gesture of the heart that recognizes our perfection even in our obvious imperfection…Awareness itself is the teacher, the student, and the lesson…Resting in awareness in any moment involves giving ourselves over to all our senses, in touch with inner and outer landscapes as one seamless whole."

And in my experience, different teachings, expressions, methods, explorations, practices or pathless paths offer different doorways to Here-Now, the place we have never actually left. They each illuminate a different aspect of this living reality, a different dimension or facet of it, a different possibility, and they each illuminate or deconstruct different delusions that create our human suffering.

Byron Katie offers a beautiful method for questioning our thinking; the Headless Way offers a beautifully simple pointing out of our essential nature as the Awake Capacity in which everything appears and disappears; Peter Brown’s Yoga of Radiant Presence opens us to the infinitely subtle and unresolvable textures of present experiencing; Eckhart Tolle invites us to wake up to the ever-present Now and to be aware of how we create conflict and suffering through thinking; mindfulness meditation brings us out of heads and into our bodies, opening us to the sensory textures of each moment while also illuminating our habitual patterns of thought; various Advaita satsang teachers point us to the boundless awareness that is always here, the transcendental aware presence that we are; Buddhism deconstructs the self and the apparent reality of persisting separate “things”; radical nondualists remind us that “this is it, just as it is,” that the one who feels separate and lacking is only a mirage, that even the mirage is also “it”, and that there really is no “it”; various iconoclastic anti-teachers remind us to find our own way and be true to our own unique vision, to be a light unto ourselves.

Each of these different pointers, practices, paths and ways of seeing life have different strengths and different potential pitfalls or ways they can inadvertently lead us astray. They can all be misunderstood or taken to false extremes. One of them can often be the perfect antidote to the unintended consequences of another. We each find what we need in every moment, and it can be different from one moment to the next, and for each person. Thus, on my website recommended page, you can find many different voices, often seemingly contradictory in what they offer.

For a long time, we may be caught up in trying to figure out which one is right, which one is the best, which one is the highest truth, the most effective, the most advanced, and so on. But eventually we realize these are false questions. These seemingly different maps all have something valuable to offer, and none of them can fully capture every dimension and possibility of this living reality.

No map is itself the territory that it helps us to navigate. And so, we learn to take from each what resonates now, and not to mistake the finger pointing at the moon for the moon itself. We even learn that the moon and the pointing finger are not two, that mapping is an activity of the territory, that nothing is outside of this seamless no-thing-ness. We find many apparent paradoxes, and we discover that reality is not one, not two. We lean this way and then that way. Thankfully, different imaginary rugs we try to stand on get pulled out from under us. Again and again we wake up. Just this!

What is it? We can’t say. And yet, apparently we have to say something, just as we apparently have to act in one way or another. And so, these words and all the many spiritual practices and pointers on offer have all poured out choicelessly from we know not where into the great listening presence that we all are.

-- copyright Joan Tollifson 2022 --

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