The Addiction to Authority and the Search for Certainty
They say in Buddhism, “If you meet the Buddha on the road (i.e., outside of yourself), kill him.” We so easily assume others must know more, or be wiser, more awake, more evolved, or more whatever than we are. We’re deeply conditioned to look “out there” (to experts, authorities, gurus, scriptures, etc.) for answers, and to trust those we imagine have something we don’t, or else rebel against them, which is simply the mirror image of the same phenomenon.
There is certainly a place for humility, for recognizing what we don’t know, for allowing others to help us, for learning from others and recognizing that ultimately, there are no "others." So I’m by no means advocating a false egalitarianism or saying we should throw all experts, teachers and teachings out the window and reinvent the wheel. But at a certain point, in a way, that’s exactly what we must do—we must stand alone and be true to our own direct experience, our own vision, our own explorations and discoveries. Because ultimately, no one else can do this for us, and every one of us has a unique path and a unique vision. No one else knows what we need. And no one has the One True Answer, the One and Only Right Way.
This has been one of the hardest things for me to fully grok, this finding and trusting my own mind. And sometimes, this standing alone and being the unvarnished bare actuality of this moment, just as it is, doesn’t happen. The search for some kind of final explanation, some certainty or security, some authoritative truth is profoundly addictive.
When I first landed at Springwater Center back in the late 80s, the retreat center founded by Toni Packer, she would talk a lot about our desire for authority. It was clearly a major human issue as far as she was concerned, as it had been for J. Krishnamurti. But at the time, I didn’t see craving for, or dependence on authority as my issues. I was raised by atheist-agnostics to be a free thinker, I went to a liberal arts college that encouraged thinking outside the box, I had been a counter-culture rebel in the 60s, an acid tripper, a wild bar dyke, someone who flew in the face of convention in every imaginable way, a political radical—obviously I wasn’t someone who craved authority. Right? It took me quite a long time to realize just how deeply I did (and at times still do) look outside myself for the “right” answers, put others up above me, and mistrust my own mind and my own insights. I’m still working on this one.
I’ve done this with both “political correctness” and “spiritual truth.” I stayed in the radical left for quite a while after I began to feel that many of the positions we were taking were totally wrong—but I silenced myself. I believed what they told me, that my doubts were symptomatic of my white petty-bourgeois privilege, that I just needed to quash that and submit to the party line. I kept trying. And then in the spiritual world, I have looked up to a number of teachers and authors over the years, from Toni Packer to Tony Parsons, trying to fit myself into their (often contradictory) perspectives or win their approval. And I still find myself at times doubting my own seeing and looking to someone else.
I see this happening in others as well, including people I meet with. I can sometimes tell, for example, that someone I’m talking to has adopted the supposedly “correct” (or “highest” or “truest”) form of nonduality that someone else is preaching—that this has become a belief or a dogma, that the one who preached it is being held up as an infallible authority, and that this is blocking the natural expression and creativity of the person I’m speaking with. It’s like a box they’re in.
I’m not saying here that we shouldn’t read books, attend retreats or satsangs, listen to talks or watch YouTube videos. Everything has its place. But we can begin to discern the difference between when something is truly nurturing us, and when it is a kind of desperate or addictive seeking for the right answer. We can feel whether we are viewing some teacher or some book as an infallible authority or simply as someone we respect and find interesting and worth hearing, but whom we feel perfectly able to question and disagree with. Of course, we can’t make ourselves drop the insecure, addictive part, even when we see it. And yet, the more clearly it is seen for what it is, the less grip it has and the more it falls away. For some, this may be a decisive and permanent happening, for others (like myself) it seems to be more of a gradual process. And we don’t get to choose how it unfolds for us.
Ultimately, life is doing us, we’re not doing it. Although paradoxically, we ARE life. We are indeed responsible, in the sense of responsive, for everything, because we ARE everything, and we can’t really nail down how realizations, thoughts, actions, choices and decisions happen. Are we doing them or are they happening to us? Or is there a false separation in both of those formulations, a false division? As always, it’s so important not to cling to conceptual maps or to imagine that our innate curiosity and the deep longing of the heart will be satisfied by anyone else’s answers or by any conceptual formulation.
In Zen Buddhism, there’s a lay ordination ceremony where you are given a Buddhist name that your teacher chooses for you, usually in some Asian language, and the English translation generally sounds very spiritual and exotic, something like “Way of Joy/ Boundless Equanimity” or “Lotus Flower/Empty Mind.” But one of my favorite Zen teachers, Barry Magid in NYC, apparently gives people their own actual, ordinary, everyday names at lay ordination. In other words, my Buddhist name would be Joan Tollifson—this very person, this vulnerable and transient, utterly unique, totally imperfect, unresolved, flawed and yet absolutely perfect, ever-changing expression of totality, THIS is who I am called to be—not Tranquility Mountain or Pure Emptiness or Lotus Flower, not Toni Packer or Tony Parsons or Nisargadatta or Darryl Bailey, but THIS particular, unique, one-of-a-kind human being, just as I actually am, moment to moment. That’s such a powerful lesson, to be yourself, to find your own mind, to be as you are, to not hide behind anyone else, parrot anyone else, or try to fit yourself into anyone else’s shoes—to be true to your own truth—in spirituality, in nonduality, in politics, in whatever realm.
And, of course, this doesn’t mean that “myself” is any substantial or persisting “thing” that can be grasped, nor is it pointing to egoic self-centeredness, or to the kind of rugged individualism that ignores society, nor to some uncompromising version of “my way or the highway,” nor does it negate wholeness and the recognition that one is inseparable from the totality and that absolutely everything is myself. It is perhaps the living koan of a lifetime to find out exactly what it DOES mean to be you (or me), and to be true to that, to BE that. No facile, second-hand, conceptual “answers” or conclusions will satisfy. It is an unresolvable, ever-unfolding, living koan that can only be answered by life itself, moment to moment, right now.
--Copyright Joan Tollifson 2020--
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