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Exploring Ultimate Reality Here-Now

Is Consciousness the ground of being, the source and substance of everything?

How will we approach such a question? I would suggest that we begin by putting aside any beliefs we have about this and any “answers” that have come to us second-hand. And instead of approaching this as a metaphysical or philosophical question that we try to figure out “the answer” to by thinking and reasoning, I would suggest it might be much more interesting and liberating to approach it experientially, by tuning into and exploring, or investigating, our actual direct experience here and now.

When we do that, what do we notice?

We can notice that whatever-this-is, this present experiencing that is showing up, is an ever-changing movement that never resolves or solidifies as any kind of fixed or persisting “thing” that can be pinned down, grasped or separated out from everything else that it apparently is not. As they point out in Buddhism, impermanence is so thorough-going that no independent, persisting thing ever actually forms to BE impermanent.

And yet, at the same time, experience is always showing up right here, right now, in this immediacy or present-ness that is immovably always the case. We might describe Here-Now as the ever-present timeless (or eternal) infinity or vastness that never comes, never goes, and never stays the same. It might also be described as spacious awareness or boundless presence. It is the still point, the center of which is everywhere and the circumference nowhere. It is the unconditional love beholding and allowing everything to be just as it is.

We can also notice that present experiencing is infinitely varied or diversified. There is a multitude of different colors, shapes, sounds, sensations, textures, tastes, smells, emotional states, feelings, and qualities of experience. And at the same time, present experiencing is always showing up as a seamless whole, a singularity—one whole moving picture that never departs from right here, right now. And if we look closely at any particular thing within this moving picture that we might single out, we find that it has no beginning or end, no inside or outside, no actual boundaries—everything opens into infinity and is made up of everything it is not. This wholeness is holographic, fractal, like those jewels in Indra’s Net that are each only a reflection of all the others.

Noticing the wholeness of everything, the way it all goes together, the seamlessness, the interdependency, the non-separation, the non-duality of everything—the fact that polarities are inseparable and only exist relative to each other, that there is no actual boundary between inside and outside, or between self and not-self, or between subject and object—can be a very liberating realization. It shows us that everything belongs, that it all goes together. The name we put on this undivided and indivisible wholeness—whether we call it Consciousness, Unicity, the Tao, Buddha Nature, God, the Self, the One-without-a-second, Primordial Awareness, the universe, or bloopity-bloop—seems much less important to me than the recognition of it experientially. And that recognition is not some amazing achievement or some exotic transcendental experience that we must search for and then maintain—it’s simply a noticing of how it is in our actual direct experience right here, right now.

And giving it a name—any name at all—carries with it the side effect of reification—making this wholeness into an (imaginary) object in our minds, a particular finite thing, SOMETHING that can be experienced, grasped or nailed down—this but not that. And, of course, any such version of wholeness is illusory. Because there is no way to stand outside of EVERYTHING and objectify it as SOMETHING. There is no way to understand totality. It is literally inconceivable. And yet, it is also inescapable. It cannot be attained because it cannot be lost. It is all there is. It is totally obvious, albeit ungraspable.

If we give complete and open attention to any apparent “thing” that appears, however solid and substantial it might initially seem to be, we find that it actually has no substance at all. The more closely we enter into any apparent thing as bare sensation or pure experiencing, the more it dissolves into nothing at all. And yet, this no-thing-ness is not a dead void, but rather, an alive emptiness that is suffused with energy, intelligence, creativity, possibility—infinite potential. It is absolute freedom. And yet it is no-thing at all. It is utterly without form or substance, completely unknowable as any kind of object. We ARE it, but we cannot see or find or possess it.

That inconceivability, that emptiness, that groundlessness and ungraspability is wonderfully freeing, and yet, at first glance, it often scares us. The desire to locate ourselves and know what’s happening, to get control, is deeply rooted in our biology as part of our survival instinct. In a practical sense, this is functional and necessary, but in terms of finding any kind of truth about the nature of life, all our attempts to get a grip or find a foothold are unsatisfying. Because any answer we find becomes doubtful, anything we grip slips away, and any foothold we land on turns out to be unreliable. We crave something that we can believe in and hold onto, like a security blanket, and a concept such as “Consciousness” offers itself as a possibility. Answers are very seductive to the mind, and our tendency to seek and grab onto them is generally quite strong and persistent.

But what exactly IS “consciousness”? Is it another word for sentience, for aliveness, for experiencing, for the undeniable certainty of being present? Is it the light that illuminates everything perceivable and conceivable, the light behind attention? Does it include the darkness before the light? Is it this awaring presence, the alive emptiness at the core of everything, the still point that contains it all? What IS it?

On the one hand, consciousness seems to be our most obvious, undeniable, immediate actuality—the very substance of experiencing itself, the common factor in every different experience. And yet, when we try to get hold of consciousness or pin it down, we can’t really seem to find it. We can notice that we never experience anything outside of, or other than, consciousness (or we could say, other than present experiencing). If there IS anything else, we can never know it. We can only imagine it (as an experience in consciousness). That may be a tautology, but it’s one we cannot get past, except speculatively. All we have is experiencing. Of course, concluding that there cannot be anything “out there” (or “in here”) is arguably a step too far. 

After all, what about all the things that are apparently going on below the level of conscious awareness—the infinite complexity of our nervous system, our brain, our heart and lungs and liver and intestines—the whole functioning of the universe at infinitely varied and fractal levels of complexity from the subatomic to the intergalactic? What about the evolution that has supposedly occurred over time from insentient matter and energy, to primitive forms of organic life, and finally to increasingly complex nervous systems and brains and degrees of consciousness?

Of course, we know about ALL of this only through consciousness, as something appearing in consciousness, and made of consciousness in that sense, and yet we presume that it all exists outside of consciousness, or that it existed before there was consciousness. And so, from this perspective, based in thought and rationality, it seems that there must be a bigger happening, a bigger totality in which consciousness as we usually mean it is but one possibility—something that comes and goes.

And this isn’t just something we can think and reason about, but in our own actual experience, every night we leave the movie of waking life, or maybe more accurately, the movie disappears along with the one who seems to be watching it, the one who cares about it. In deep dreamless sleep there is no experience at all, and no experiencer in any perceivable sense. Of course, awareness is still there—after all, we wake up if we hear an alarm or smell smoke. But will awareness still be there in that way, as a non-experience or a potential, after death? Is primordial awareness the ground of being?

How can we know and does it even matter?

Instead of getting lost in speculation or belief, if we return to the simplicity of present experiencing here and now, this question vanishes. It takes thought and imagination to conjure it up, to imagine some future time “after death,” and to wonder if “I” will still be there as this conscious experiencing, this awaring presence that knows that I AM and that THIS IS, this conscious presence that disappears every night in deep sleep or under anesthesia. And we can notice that in that absence, in deep sleep or under anesthesia, there is no I AM there to miss the I AM—it’s not like being buried alive. So from there, the question of what happens to me after death is totally meaningless.

Trying to know what ultimate reality IS, is rooted first in the idea that we can step outside of it and see it as an object, and beyond that, it is rooted in the strange idea that it is something other than simply what it is. When we ask what something “is,” we’re trying to put it in a category of some kind. And it’s a fool’s errand to do that with ultimate reality, because totality cannot possibly be put into a category. And yet, here it always is, just as it is. We simply have to let go of trying to define it and settle into simply BEING it. And even if we seemingly can’t let go and settle in, even that activity and apparent disturbance is itself nothing but ultimate reality doing what it does. No wave ever moves independently of the ocean.

We’re not really separate from this aliveness, this boundless wholeness that is without beginning or end. We’re not actually EVER some independent “thing” that needs to “get a grip” by figuring it all out, so that we don’t fall into some bottomless void. That’s ALL imagination. That’s the wave imagining it is separate from the ocean and worrying about what will happen to it when it subsides back into the ocean.

Counter-intuitively, what is most liberating is having nothing at all to hold onto—simply the groundlessness of this moment, a moment that is fleeting and ephemeral and yet seamlessly whole and complete. It’s like we’re free-falling, but there’s no one falling and no ground to hit.

Instead of some deadly serious search for final enlightenment or salvation, or some effortful practice aimed at either self-improvement or self-dissolution, maybe it’s possible to simply ENJOY what is, just as it is. And maybe there’s a natural, playful curiosity and interest in exploring this living actuality, not as a practice, not as a form of seeking, not in a result-oriented way, not looking for some future attainment, not about me improving me—but simply as an enjoyable, playful, open exploration. We don’t know what this will reveal because every moment is fresh and new and has never been here before.

This exploration can take many different forms: science, meditation, spiritual practices of different kinds, psychotherapy of many different varieties, somatic work, lovemaking, relationships, travel, philosophy, the arts. But one way of exploring is simply to be open here and now to whatever is presenting itself, allowing it to be just as it is, to move as it wants to move, noticing that there is really no possibility of getting it wrong, that what we call “distraction” or “obscuration” or “confusion” is itself just another shape that experiencing is momentarily taking. Nothing is left out. Nothing needs to be other than how it is. Nothing is excluded. And whether we turn our attention to the ever-changing appearances (sensations, perceptions, thoughts, feelings) or to the awaring presence being and beholding it all, in either case, we come to the same vastness, the same alive emptiness, the same groundlessness, the same openness, the same dazzling darkness, wonderment and freedom from all concern.

-- copyright Joan Tollifson 2020 --

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