It has certainly been a strange weather week, what with our province being covered with ice today and snow falling in Texas and the Middle East. Due to the strange and wonderful weather conditions in Nova Scotia this weekend, I’m delivering to you one of my “Highlights of the Highlights” issues today instead of my regular compendium-style one.
This selection comes from an issue of Gloria’s from last winter which features a lengthy but insightful piece by the eminently wise, wonderfully readable Joan Tollifson. I’ve been a big fan of Tollifson’s writing since Glo first introduced her to me; she comes from a similar sort of “real-world” position that Pema Chödrön does, and integrates beautifully the esoteric nature of deep spiritual science with regular, ordinary life.
It seems to me that spiritual teachers who are women have a particular gift in attaining that balance; I strongly suspect it has to do with their need as mothers and wives to keep the household running even in the face of deep spiritual practice. The buck always stops with the mother and wife, in the end; even if they’re serious spiritual practitioners, they still often end up needing to clean up the messes left behind by the other men and children in their lives, and that practice can yield unique insights into both the deep spiritual AND the human dimensions of life.
#4856 – Thursday, February 28, 2013 – Editor: Gloria Lee
The Nonduality Highlights
The peace that we are looking for is not peace that crumbles as soon as there is difficulty or chaos. Whether we’re seeking inner peace or global peace or a combination of the two, the way to experience it is to build on the foundation of unconditional openness to all that arises. Peace isn’t an experience free of challenges, free of rough and smooth—it’s an experience that’s expansive enough to include all that arises without feeling threatened. ~ Pema Chodron
Excerpt from Tollifson:
I just got word that someone I knew took his own life recently, someone who had a very clear nondual understanding. Many years ago, I remember hearing of a Zen teacher who committed suicide. His students found him hanging. What a teaching! Many people imagine that “enlightenment” (whatever that might be) means you wouldn’t do something like that – you wouldn’t kill yourself, you wouldn’t be depressed, you wouldn’t have financial problems or health problems or personal problems or problems of any kind—you wouldn’t need Zoloft— and if you were terminally ill, you wouldn’t want the morphine—you’d want to be clear and alert and “fully present” at the moment of your death (presumably so that you could get a good start on a successful new incarnation of your self – ho ho ho).
In the world of meditation or “the Power of Now,” what people tend to mean when they talk about clarity or awakeness (or “enlightenment”) is being fully present here and now, awake to the nonconceptual, sensory reality of this moment, not entranced in stories and ideologies.
But in my experience, the most liberating realization of all is the recognition that there is no way NOT to be here now—that EVERYTHING is included in What Is, even the EXPERIENCE of confusion, or depression, or anxiety, or apparent encapsulation in a separate bodymind, or even the compulsion to take your own life or the life of someone else.
Unlike some radical nondualists, I do still talk at times about “being in the Now.” Maybe one day I’ll stop doing that entirely. I’ve mentioned in some of my writing that with my fingerbiting compulsion, whenever there is complete attention to the bare actuality of fingerbiting (i.e., the bare sensations without the storyline or the labels or the judgments), when there is total acceptance of it being just as it is, when there is no effort or desire or intention to change it, when there is complete awareness and total presence with the bare happening itself, the biting immediately stops. (It may start again a moment later, but in that moment of complete attention and total acceptance, it stops.) This experience is completely nonverbal and nonconceptual. It is concentrated but relaxed, alert but effortless, open and unbounded, free awareness. It is frequently called “being in the Now” because there is no story happening of past or future, no ideas about “me” and “my life” – just simple awake presence Here / Now. This kind of presence and attention to the present moment is what many schools of meditation aim to cultivate.
And this can indeed be helpful for dealing with addiction, depression, anxiety, stress, physical pain and other forms of suffering. And as I have often said, sitting quietly, doing nothing, tuning into the nonconceptual sensory reality that is so easily ignored in our busy world of information bombardment MAY help to directly reveal impermanence, interdependence, the absence of any real separation between inside and outside, the mirage-like nature of the self, and the ungraspable, inconceivable and unavoidable nature of reality. All of this CAN be very liberating — it certainly seemed so for me—and for a very long time, I associated this experience of presence with true awakening or real clarity, and I had the sense that enlightenment or final liberation would be the state of abiding permanently in that kind of presence—being “in the Now” all the time.
But of course, that kind of experiential “being in the Now” inevitably comes and goes. For some people, it is an easy state to access—for others, it is more elusive. Some bodyminds have more stormy weather than others. Some people naturally have more equanimity, greater calm, and a better ability to concentrate and relax and “be present” than other people. Some people are by nature more tightly wound, more hyperactive, buzzing with thoughts and impulses flying off in different directions, more easily “distracted” from what they are “supposed” to be concentrating on. Some people can happily sit quietly doing nothing for hours, while others can’t sit still and “do nothing” for more than a few seconds. And while training and practice may be able to alter our basic nature to some degree, it can never turn a turtle into a rabbit, a dandelion into a rose, or a shrub into a giant redwood tree.
Some of us are given the abilities, the aptitude, the inclinations, the interests, the drives, the urges, the concerns, and the circumstances that compel us to join or lead a movement for social justice or environmental protection. Others of us are given the abilities, the aptitude, the inclinations, the interests, the drives, the urges, the concerns, and the circumstances that compel us to take up a spiritual practice such as meditation—and some of us have the interest and the ability to persevere at this practice, while others quickly or eventually lose interest. Some of us are compelled toward radical nonduality, many of us are not. Each of us is an expression of nature, just as each tree, each animal, each flower, each rock, each cloud and each rainstorm is an expression of nature. Some trees are tall and straight, some are short and gnarled. Some buds open and blossom, others die before that ever happens. ALL of these varied forms and happenings are an expression of nature.
Nothing holds still. Every form is inseparable from everything around it, and each form is nothing but continuous change. Impermanence and flux are so thorough-going that no-thing actually forms as a solid, persisting, independent entity—except conceptually, as a mental idea. No-thing is actually separate, autonomous, or self-sufficient. Everything is one whole indivisible happening—seamless and boundless—ever-present and ever-changing.
At some point in my journey from Here to Here, it became clear that ALL states of consciousness (“being in the Now” AND being entranced by thoughts and stories) are equally included in What Is, and that ALL of them are passing experiences. All these different experiences are impersonal in the sense that they have no owner, no author, no subject—they are simply expressions of nature like the ever-changing movements of the outer weather. It was realized that biting my fingers is simply a compulsive happening of nature that is no more wrong or unenlightened or personally caused than a thunderstorm or a cloudy day or a gnarled up tree or any other expression of nature. It doesn’t MEAN anything “about me.”
That discovery or realization was a big relief. The NEED to get rid of this compulsion and all the ideas about what it meant about me fell away. The biting continues off and on when it does, but there is no judgment or evaluation of it, none of the previous conflict with it that used to be present. The interest and the inclination to pay total attention to it in any given moment (to “be in the Now” with it) may or may not arise, and it doesn’t matter either way. There is no longer any idea that “being here now” is the superior spiritual state and that “I” must make that happen.
It’s clear here that everything happens in the only way possible. Some people are compelled to do terrible things like child molesting and serial murder in the same way that I am still compelled to bite my fingers. Only by grace (aka luck) is my compulsion fingerbiting and not serial murder or molesting children. No one chooses to be a serial killer or a child molester, and although most of us find such behavior repugnant and disturbing, it is as much a part of nature as erupting volcanoes, earthquakes, tornados, plagues, and animals eating their young. That doesn’t mean we have to like it, or that we won’t put serial killers in prisons and do our best to keep child molesters away from children. But it does mean we may have compassion for these unfortunate people who are driven to do things that they themselves may find abhorrent, acts that make them social pariahs and outcasts. We don’t get to choose the part we play in the Cosmic Dance.
The most liberating realization is that ALL of it is What Is – the parts we like and the parts we don’t, the “being here now” and the “being lost in thoughts and stories,” the calm experiences and the turbulent ones, the moments of heaven and the moments of hell, the heroes and the villains and the ordinary folk in between.
And we really have no way of KNOWING what THIS (this presently appearing happening) is. We can only BE it. We ARE it. It is ALL there is. Our attempts to understand this happening, whether through physics or neuroscience or biology or philosophy or spirituality, are always limited. We can never stand outside this happening. Subject and object are not two. The observer is inseparable from the observed; they are one event. Any understanding we have is partial and always subject to doubt. But we cannot doubt BEING here. We cannot doubt this present happening, this aware beingness. We can doubt any explanations of it (that it is a dream, or a brain experience, or a bunch of atoms and molecules doing a subatomic dance), but we cannot
doubt the bare ACTUALITY of the happening itself, the beingness of Here / Now – THIS, just as it is.
And we can notice that it is no way in particular, for it is ever-changing. Anything we try to grasp will vanish and disappear. Anything we THINK is permanent (including any IDEA or any EXPERIENCE or any subtle IMAGE of the One Self or Consciousness or Primordial Awareness or Emptiness) will vanish and slip through our fingers like water, air or smoke. And yet….
THIS is undeniable. You cannot NOT be as you are – this ever-unfolding, ever-present event that is always Here / Now. This event may show up as the mirage-like thought-sense of bring a separate-self encapsulated in a bodymind looking out at the world. It may show up as an experience of undivided wholeness. It may show up as the experience of “being here now,” or it may show up as molesting children, committing serial murders, planning a genocide, drinking yourself to death, committing suicide or biting your fingers. It may show up as a giant meteor hitting the earth and wiping out an entire continent, or it may show up as a gentle spring day. However it shows up, it is all one undivided happening without beginning or end.
Of course, this begs the question, what do we mean by realization or enlightenment? We thought at first that realization meant “being in the Now” and that enlightenment meant “being in the Now” all the time. From that perspective, it seemed like we were going back and forth between “getting it” and “losing it.” It seemed that “realization” meant something experiential, something “deeper” than merely understanding all of this conceptually or believing it as a philosophy. But then we realized there was no way NOT to be here now, and no one apart from Here / Now to be in or out of it. There is no separate “somebody” to be lost or found, realized or not realized, enlightened or unenlightened.
The whole spiritual adventure melted away. We were left with life, just as it is.
That doesn’t mean being left in a state of perpetual bliss or having a continuous EXPERIENCE of “being in the Now” (except in the sense that EVERY experience is one of being in the Now). It doesn’t mean we are always calm, decisive, spontaneous, relaxed, fearless, happy and filled with love. Some people by nature have more or less stormy weather than others, just as some places are by nature sunnier and others more overcast and cloudy. Realization simply means it is ALL recognized as What Is, even the absence of that recognition. It’s not a perpetual EXPERIENCE – but rather, the understanding that EVERY experience is one whole happening without an experiencer, even the experience of apparently being a separate experiencer. Nothing is left out. Nothing is not it. And there is no “it” to be found!
Like the edge of the earth that our ancestors feared they might fall off, the problem we’ve been trying to solve is imaginary. We are no longer seeking heaven without hell, or up without down. We don’t mind being the short tree instead of the tall tree because we know it’s all a play, and we’re the Whole Show. And this isn’t an EXPERIENCE or a special STATE of consciousness. It is JUST THIS, Here / Now, EXACTLY as it is!
How is it? It just moved! And yet, Here it is!
Joan Tollifson’s website, with her books, is www.joantollifson.com/books-joan-tollifson.html