#5208 – Joan Tollifson

Issue #5208 – Monday, April 21st, 2014 – Editor: Dustin LindenSmith

Joan Tollifson has long been one of my favourite writers in this field since I first discovered her in the mid-2000s. I’m fairly sure it was Jerry who first introduced her writing to me, and she immediately struck me as being outlandishly clear and succinct. She eschews all of the jargon and pretence that some of the more esoteric spiritually-minded writers and teachers occasionally have.

Tollifson was thoroughly profiled in a recent edition of the excellent online magazine One, and having been a paying subscriber to that publication for about a year, I was eager to read this piece. It’s absolutely worth the subscription fee to read this, along with the other numerous and well-conceived articles that are available there:


Tollifson’s profile begins by taking us through some of her earliest background. It’s also eventually made clear that part of her groundedness is based on her having lived a fairly chaotic life at times.

Even though she was raised without religion in the postwar Midwest, she claims to have recognized early on that “spirituality in some form” would be her vocation. Her father was an atheist and lay physicist who explained to her at a young age that free will was an illusion and that “nothing could be other than exactly how it is.” She remembers him teaching her that the physical world was manifest from an undivided field of pure energy; that the world and all of its contents were nothing more than an energetic dance of subatomic particles that had no real separation from one another at a cosmic level.

This world view was counterbalanced by that of Tollifson’s mother, who was herself more attuned to a selfless love for the world around her and all of its peoples. She believed in the infinite possibilities around her and in total acceptance of the way things and people were. Tollifson refers to her parents as her first real teachers, and it’s clear that her earliest spiritual insights were at least partly cultivated via her unique upbringing.

Tollifson was also raised with a personal challenge in the form of having been born with the lower part of her right arm having been amputated during her mother’s pregnancy with her; the limb was slowly strangled to death by a ruptured amniotic band in utero. Growing up as a female with such a noticeable physical disfigurement was much more of a challenge than it might otherwise be today, and she recalls feeling a deep sense of being flawed or repulsive as she grew up. However, this directly spawned in Tollifson a foundational insight that would serve her well in later years:

As it turned out, this gave me a great affinity for all other human beings who were regarded as less than perfect—people of color, foreigners, people with mental disorders, outsiders of all sorts.  Eventually I realized everyone feels flawed and wounded in some way, that my missing arm was a kind of externalization of a condition that is universal but more often hidden… Having only one hand has been one of my greatest teachers and greatest gifts, one of many opportunities in this life to discover perfection in imperfection and enlightenment in samsara.

Tollifson embraced the social change that coalesced during her coming-of-age in the 1960s. She saw Martin Luther King, Jr. speak live, and she bore personal witness to the injustices of racism, government oppression and war. She also came out as a lesbian while in college in 1966, and eventually found herself falling deep into a world of heavy drinking, drug use and sex. During this period she also came to understand the inherent meaninglessness of words, in part courtesy of her first experience with LSD:

I remember that on my first acid trip, I couldn’t talk.  I was totally silent.  Everyone was quite worried and kept asking me if I was okay.  I wanted to reassure them, so I’d start to speak, but then it would instantly be obvious to me that any word I might utter referred to nothing at all.  Words were meaningless sounds, and the apparently solid and discrete things they labeled, defined and created in the imagination, were all make-believe.  The world was much more fluid and much less graspable than words could ever capture.  That realization is actually a profound spiritual insight, although I didn’t recognize it as such at the time.

Sadly, Tollifson engaged in several years’ worth of reckless and dangerous behaviour that could easily have taken her life. After an apocryphal fight with her lover in 1973, Tollifson attempted suicide by overdosing on pills, then cracked her head open in a drunken fall that landed her in hospital. Through the intervention of an unconventional lesbian doctor and therapist who worked with LGBT alcoholics and addicts, she learned how to become conscious of the choices she was making and stopped drinking, taking drugs, and smoking cigarettes.

It was only after entering and then leaving the field of radical political activism that she turned to the study of martial arts and Zen Buddhism. She recalls with some fondness what she learned and experienced during her first serious Zen retreat:

I remember the excruciating pain that came with sitting motionless in the half-lotus posture for days on end.  I remember discovering that if I relaxed into the pain, totally accepted it, and went right into the core of it with awareness, it would dissolve or at least be completely tolerable and even interesting, whereas if I tightened up and resisted it, then it would seem unbearable, as if it were going to kill me.

Tollifson lived for a time at the Berkeley Zen Center and studied with Charlotte Joko Beck, whose non-judgmental, open-hearted approach I think informs Tollifson’s in several ways. She took Beck’s approach to new levels when she began following Toni Packer in 1988. Packer was herself a former Zen teacher who had developed a less formal approach of her own that left most of the dogma of Zen behind while keeping the silent sitting intact. Toni Packer was also greatly influenced by J. Krishnamurti:

There was no prescribed sitting posture, you could even sit in an armchair if you wanted, and the sitting schedule was entirely optional.  Toni emphasized open listening, awareness, and meditative inquiry—seeing thoughts as thoughts, waking up from entrancement in stories and beliefs, discovering the undivided wholeness of presence, exploring the “me” at the center of an upset feeling, looking to see if there was any author of our thoughts or any maker of our decisions.

While living and working at Packer’s rural New York retreat centre called Springwater, Tollifson published her first book, Bare-Bones Meditation: Waking Up from the Story of My Life. It was during her last years at Springwater that she also discovered Advaita through the teachings of Nisargadatta and by attending a number of retreats first with Jean Klein, followed by Gangaji. This was followed by a several-year period during which Tollifson explored numerous satsang teachers and also started holding meetings of her own.

During the period following her mother’s death in 2000, Tollifson dimly recognized without much fanfare that her search for enlightenment had simply ended:

I was in Chicago for 8 years, and somewhere during those years, seeking ended.  There can still be moments of trying to get away from some uncomfortable feeling by turning on the TV or checking email—those are very subtle forms of seeking. But my search for enlightenment “out there” somewhere ended in Chicago.  It didn’t end dramatically in a flash of light.  I simply noticed one day that it wasn’t there anymore, that it had dissolved.  Exploration, curiosity, and discovery continue, but the search for some finish-line event or explosive transformation was over.  I knew beyond any doubt where home was—right here, right now, in the utter simplicity of being just this moment.

For a long time, that hadn’t seemed like enough.  At least not when I thought about it.  I’d get caught up in the story of not being as good as those teachers whose awakenings were more dramatic and apparently more permanent.  I felt that something was lacking in my case, that I hadn’t fully arrived yet because I could still feel defensive or get depressed or bite my fingers.  I still imagined a “there” outside of Here / Now.  I wanted what these other teachers seemed to have—a permanent absence of the thought-sense of separation, a permanent dropping away of all delusion, an unbreakable stability in open presence.  It took quite a long time to notice that these concerns were all about me, that they were the entrancement in thought that recreated the virtual reality from which they were so desperately trying to escape.  Only from the perspective of the fictional separate self is there any concern with how I rank or compare with others.  In unbound awareness or presence, such measurements and comparisons make no sense.  There is only this seamless happening, just as it is. And Here / Now is always here, equally present in moments of contraction and moments of expansion.

It would appear, from my reading of Tollifson’s more recent work, that her awakening has really settled in. And yet, she is also refreshingly honest about how unenlightened she feels sometimes, and how fleeting these glimpses of awakening can sometimes feel. She also has tremendous insight into the daily minutiae of being awakened, and helps to unpack and demystify that experience in terribly clear ways.

The deepest truth is that we really don’t know why the occasional person seemingly wakes up more-or-less permanently in a single moment, while for most of us, awakening is a much more gradual, zigzagging, spiraling, back-and-forth unraveling over many decades.  We all have different weather systems as a result of our different genetics, neurochemistry, hormones, conditioning, and life experiences.  Each of us is absolutely unique in that regard.  And yet, we’re not really the separate, independent, persisting entities we think we are.  We’re actually fluid, borderless, permeable, ever-changing, wave-like events, inseparable from everything else in the universe.  No wave more fully embodies the ocean than any other, and no wave controls the ocean.  Who can say why one wave is bigger or smaller, stronger or weaker than another, or even where one wave ends and another begins?  The ocean is seamless.  If we identify as the wave, which is a frozen concept, we take our story personally and compare ourselves to others.  But from the perspective of the ocean, the concern with not being the biggest or the best wave dissolves completely.  We realize that our ideas of success and failure are just that, ideas.

Joan Tollifson now resides in Ashland, Oregon and continues to hold satsangs and meetings in person, by phone, by e-mail and via Skype. For more information, please visit http://www.joantollifson.com/.


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