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Nonconceptual Presence: Effortlessly Open and Free


Thought loves complexity, trying to work everything out conceptually. For most of us, it's our go-to mode. And it's addictive. But the non-conceptual actuality of this immediate and ever-changing living reality is simple. Here it is!

Imagine for a moment that you are newborn (which actually, moment to moment, you are), and imagine that you have never learned or heard words such as “awareness” or “consciousness” or “mind” or “matter” or "brain" or “awakening” or “God” or “dualism.” Imagine you are simply here, wordlessly, without any labels or conceptual frames at all for what is happening. What’s here?

Take a moment to really explore that before reading on.

Notice the immediacy of present experiencing, the present-ness of it, the aliveness—sounds, colors, shapes, movements, bodily sensations, breathing—not those word-labels, but the wordless actuality to which the words point. Notice the constantly changing nature of experiencing, the way each moment disappears as soon as it appears. It is completely ungraspable and unresolvable.

Notice also what is ever-present, the immovable space of Here-Now, the awareness in which all appearances move. Notice the vast openness and all-inclusive nature of this awareness, and notice that you are this vastness, within which the thought-sense-image-story of “you” the person appears intermittently. Because before you think of having a name, or a shape, or a story, you are already here as this aware presence, this vast openness, this whole unfathomable happening. Notice that this is so.

Notice as you go through your day how this vast openness seems to contract down periodically into the felt sense of limitation, encapsulation and separation. Attention gets lost in stories about “me” or “the world,” seemingly stuck in confusion, anxiety, depression, despair, compulsive habits. Notice how this happens, how you move from open free vast spaciousness into this narrow place. Feel that tight, narrow, dense, enclosed energy, that sense of being small and vulnerable. Notice that all of this is simply another appearance in (and of) the vastness, another changing shape it momentarily takes—a composite of changing sensations, thoughts and images. See how, even in the darkest moments, the openness never really goes away. It is the ever-present ground, appearing as every shape and every size, being and beholding it all.

Simple awaring presence is inescapable and obvious: ever-changing and ever-present. The immediacy of this as your actual present experience requires no belief and cannot be doubted. It may seemingly be overlooked by the conceptualizing mind that keeps thinking about it instead of simply being what it always already effortlessly is. But if we don't follow those thoughts, if we can pause the thinking, if we're simply here, what reveals itself?

Once again, don't look for an answer (a label or a concept), and don’t try to see “something” in particular or have any special experience other than whatever is showing up. Just be here, effortlessly awake to (and as) what is.

Notice that nothing is outside of, or other than, this awaring presence. Everything that appears always shows up right here, right now. Here is infinite (dimensionless and unlocatable); Now is eternal (timeless). Whatever time of day it is, whatever season, it is always Now. Whatever location or apparent journey shows up, it always shows up Here, in this present immediacy.

This aware presence includes everything, even the ever-changing sensations and thoughts we label “contraction” or “anxiety.” It includes both narrow focused attention and expanded unfocused attention. It includes all of apparent time and space. It includes the appearance of self and other. It includes contracted energy and expanded energy. It includes concepts and words. It includes thinking and sensing and imagining. It includes experiencing and the absence of experiencing (as in deep sleep). This vast awaring presence includes it all.

You can also notice that everything is already allowed to be as it is. It IS as it is—obviously! Awareness (Here-Now) is like unconditional love, or like an empty mirror—it accepts everything and clings to nothing. And, like the reflections in a mirror, none of what appears has any actual substance or independent existence. It seems to when we think and talk about it, when our attention is focused on the conceptualized map-world. But the things we can name and seemingly separate out from everything else (“chairs,” “tables,” “me,” “you,” “anger,” “fear,” “the body,” etc.) are always over-simplified abstractions, frozen images reified out of a moving actuality that can never really be divided up or pinned down. These are all concepts—concepts that are so ubiquitous that we easily mistake them for reality without noticing that we have done so.

Of course, mapping (thinking and conceptualizing) is something this vastness is doing, and this map-world is nothing other than this awaring presence showing up as maps and concepts. But the maps are never the territory itself, and they can never re-present the living actuality. They only describe or point to it. Maps can be functional and necessary—we can’t get rid of them, and we need them to communicate—but they so easily create the illusion of substantial, independently existing, separate things. Whereas in reality (in actual experiencing), everything always arises contextually, in relationship to everything else, as one whole indivisible and ever-changing happening. No-thing can actually be separated out or resolved into any final, fixed form. Nothing holds still in reality, except the stillness of presence itself, the immovable “still point” of Here-Now, this timeless immediacy in which time and space appear to unfold.

And magically, everything that appears dissolves as soon as it appears. Everything is appearing and disappearing instant by instant. Every moment is fresh and new. We never step into the same river twice, and we are never the same river for even one instant. Our thoughts and memories create the illusion of continuity where none actually exists. We’re never really in the bondage we imagine ourselves in.

Pain and painful circumstances are unavoidable. Life can be painful. But the ways we suffer over the pain and difficulties that life presents, that may be optional. Spiritual awakening, which only happens now, and never to “me,” is the discovery that we are already free. Not free to do whatever we want. Not free of all pain and difficulty. But free as this vastness that has no limits and that is always already whole and complete, just as it is.

Many words have just been used to point to the living reality, and to the possibility (in every moment) of waking up from imaginary problems and recognizing what is already whole and complete, already free. But don't get stuck on the words. They are only pointers. Hold them lightly and let them go.

People have thought and argued endlessly about what this living reality is, and whether the ground or source of it all is consciousness or matter. But asking what this living reality is, is asking for a label, a concept, an explanation. And that’s always one step removed from the living actuality itself. It simply IS, as it is. No words can ever capture it. Consciousness, awareness, presence, matter, atoms, molecules, quarks, brains, neurons—these are all words. Concepts. Ideas. Formulations. They may point to something nonconceptual, but no word or concept can re-present THIS that is presenting / being itself, just as it is—and the living actuality cannot be broken up or resolved into any of these conceptual formulations.

The words are empty of any actual substance. They are like playful nonsense sounds. If we were worrying about whether this living actuality was blinkinpoop or flizzlezip, it would be obvious how silly our worries were! And so once again, can we let go, if only for a moment, of all these concepts we have learned? And then, what remains?

Notice if the mind is trying to grasp it, trying to “get” it or nail it down with the “correct” word-concept, or trying to have some "correct" experience of it, or trying to make sense of it. If that’s happening, simply notice that movement of the mind. Feel the tension in it. Notice the “me” at the center of that efforting. And see if it is possible to relax into the openness that beholds it all. Simply BE this that requires no belief and that cannot be doubted—this that is here prior to thinking. Just this, exactly as it is.

Once again, imagine for a moment that you are newborn, that you have never learned to categorize and label things. Forget everything you just read. Imagine you are simply here, like a baby, wordlessly, without any conceptual frames at all for what is happening. Allow yourself to be here, if only for a moment, without knowing anything, simply awake to the absolute wonder of it all.

-- copyright Joan Tollifson 2021--

You are welcome to link to this article or to quote brief passages as fair use, but if you wish to re-post the whole article or a long excerpt anywhere else, please ask permission first, give appropriate copyright credit to Joan, and be sure to include a link to this website with your posting. Thank you!

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