NOTHING TO GRASP
No matter what state dawns at this moment, can there be just that? Not a movement away, an escape into something that will provide what this state does not provide, or doesn’t seem to provide: energy, zest, inspiration, joy, happiness, whatever. Just completely, unconditionally listening to what’s here now, is that possible?
That which is before you is it, in all its fullness, utterly complete. There is naught beside. Even if you go through all the stages of a Bodhisattva’s progress toward Buddhahood, one by one; when at last, in a single flash, you attain to full realization, you will only be realizing the Buddha-Nature which has been with you all the time; and by all the foregoing stages you will have added to it nothing at all.
This book is about liberation. That doesn’t mean the end of earthquakes, wars, bankruptcies, unemployment and cancer, and it doesn’t mean a life without heartbreak, depression, anxiety or addiction. It’s about recognizing that this is the Holy Reality, and that the Holy Reality is not somewhere else. It’s the realization that the fundamental problem can only be resolved now, and that actually, there is nothing to resolve. Liberation is finding freedom in limitation and perfection in imperfection. It is the freedom to be exactly as we are. But what are we? What is real Here / Now? What is life all about? Who is reading these words? Is reading these words an individual choice, or is it the only possible activity of the whole universe at this moment, and is there a difference? Is there a practice that leads to liberation, or does that very idea reinforce the illusion that there is someone who is bound and that liberation is “out there” somewhere in the future? This book explores these questions.
It doesn’t aim to provide answers, but rather, to undermine the assumptions behind the questions, to expose the imaginary nature of our apparent problems and dilemmas. This book invites an open listening and looking. It is not about acquiring new beliefs, but rather, it is an invitation to discover what requires no believing in order to be.
Early Spring, 2012
Life is continually living on life. Life appears in all sorts of forms and shapes. But it is still the same life, the same intelligence-energy. And you are that life.
—Sailor Bob Adamson
The delicacy of late afternoon sunlight on a single trembling leaf, white clouds sliding through the blue sky, children being sold into prostitution, starving refugees fleeing a famine, incredible acts of generosity and kindness, the sinking ache of depression, oil spilling into the oceans. Life has so many faces — beautiful in one moment, excruciating in the next, horrific beyond comprehension, exquisite beyond words.
When it is beautiful, our only suffering is in knowing it won’t last. When it is ugly, it can feel overwhelming and terrifying. Even if we don’t have to personally experience or witness the most horrific things that are going on, even if we are completely ignorant of such things, we are in fact touched by all of them, for we are not really separate from the people in faraway places or from the oceans and the air we breathe. And we each have our own personal struggles with disappointment, loneliness, economic uncertainty, chronic pain, disability, addiction — whatever the particular mix is for each one of us.
How do we make sense of all this? What’s it all about? Is there any way out of our suffering or the world suffering, or any way to live through it without falling into destructive mind-states like despair, anger, hatred, and self-pity?
Like many others, I looked in different directions for answers to these questions. I tried alcohol and drugs, psychotherapy, political activism, meditation, satsang and radical nonduality. Finally I arrived at the place I had never left: the simplicity and immediacy of Here / Now — this that is ever-present and utterly complete in spite of what happens in the movie of waking life and never because of what happens.
I still experience moments of heartbreak and discouragement, bursts of anger, waves of depression or anxiety, and periodic flare-ups of addictive and compulsive behaviors. Perhaps these things happen less frequently, less severely and for shorter duration, but they still happen. And the world at large is still full of suffering and injustice.
What does seem to have changed is that there has been a falling away of the thought-sense that I am a separate person in charge of “my life” who is going to eventually perfect myself or the world. There is the realization that life includes the whole show, the light and the dark, that none of it is personal, that all of it is happening effortlessly by itself in the only way poss-ible, and that none of it has any solidity or permanence. There is also clarity about what the unnecessary exertion is that gives rise to so much of our human suffering and confusion, how we make ourselves miserable. As this has clarified, there has been a decrease in gullibility when the siren song of delusion appears. When I find myself thinking that something is lacking or that the fix is “out there” somewhere, there is a greater ability to relax into Here / Now, the place I have never really left.
Instead of trying to intentionally fix or improve “myself” or “the world,” I am more open to allowing everything to heal itself in its own way, in its own time, as it does anyway. There is a devotion to the immediacy of life exactly as it is right now, without superimposing any kind of spin. This bare intimacy is neither an effortful, goal-oriented, improvement-seeking exertion, nor is it any kind of passive or fatalistic resignation. It is an energetic aliveness, an openness that includes everything and sticks to nothing. It is not something “you” achieve or acquire, but simply the boundlessness, the bare being that is always already fully present right here, right now.
It is a great relief to realize that in this undivided happening, there is no perfection apart from the imperfection, that the light and the dark arise together like the crest and trough of the wave, that they cannot be pulled apart, and to appreciate the holiness of everything, exactly as it is, warts and all. The firm conviction that I know what’s best for the universe seems thankfully to be evaporating. And when it does show up, it has more of an endearing quality — oh look, there goes Joan doing her little dance of concern again.
I’ve discovered that there is no end to problems. When we cure one problem, a new one emerges. But this only becomes a source of suffering if we imagine it should or could be otherwise. In fact, the turbulent, cloudy weather is as integral to the whole as the clear, sunny weather. And it’s all a matter of perspective and point of view what we consider sunny. Every time we take a step or scratch our nose, we are killing and maiming millions of microorganisms, but we don’t give this mass killing a second thought. We regard the extermination of a virus or a bunch of cancer cells as a positive thing, and we feel no moral outrage if one ant colony invades and enslaves another ant colony. But our human drama, by contrast, seems serious and full of meaning, and our particular point of view feels very real and “right” to us.
In the movie of waking life that starts playing every morning, I seem to be a character in an unfolding drama, and whenever I turn on the news, the world seems to be an epic battleground between good and evil. The story is mesmerizing and seems very real. But then magically, every night in deep sleep, the whole movie disappears and I disappear along with it. What remains in deep sleep can never be perceived or conceived. It is the groundless ground, that which is prior to consciousness, that which is consciousness. In night dreams and in the dream-like movie of waking life, this groundlessness appears as infinite forms. When we look closely, we see that these forms are nothing but continuous change, and that no solid, independent persisting thing ever actually forms except conceptually, as an idea.
The whole show is one seamless, ever-changing, ungraspable happening: subatomic particles waving in and out of existence, planets circling the sun, hurricanes sweeping across the ocean, birds migrating, ants building tunnels and hills, white blood cells battling an infection, humans clear-cutting a forest, building a meditation center, writing books, shopping for groceries, driving to work, falling in love, getting angry, waking, dreaming, daydreaming, waking up from daydreaming, thinking, remembering, imagining, hearing the traffic, reading these words. Only when we think about this seamless flow and put it into words, does it apparently get broken up into subjects and objects, nouns and verbs, causes and effects, before and after, good and bad. Only when we think, does there seem to be an unfolding narrative happening in time with “me” at the center of the story, an apparently separate unit of consciousness (a mind) encapsulated inside an apparently separate body, someone who must make something of myself, use my gifts to help the world, be a success, do the right thing, and perhaps get enlightened.
But if we look backward with awareness for the source of any impulse, thought, desire, intention, action or reaction that occurs, no point of origination can be located or found. We have no idea what our next thought will be. Recent brain research indicates that by the time a thought such as, “I need to feed the cat,” shows up in consciousness, the action this thought appears to initiate is in fact already underway in the body. In the blink of an eye, the forms of this moment vanish into thin air, replaced instantly by an entirely new universe. When we look closely at any apparent form (a chair, a person, a thought, a feeling, a sensation), it’s obvious that none of what appears has any substantial, persisting reality. Everything is changing, dissolving into something else. It is all a shimmering, dream-like appearance, vanishing as soon as it appears.
Everything is changing, and yet paradoxically, Here / Now is ever-present.
Whatever time of day or night it appears to be, whatever year it is, however old I seem to be, whatever location is showing up, it is always happening Here / Now — there is only this timeless, placeless, ownerless eternity that never comes, never goes, and never stays the same. This aware presence, this immediacy, this seamlessness that I call Here / Now is the water in every wave. This moment, just as it is, is unavoidable and inescapable.
We typically imagine ourselves to be an enduring, independent entity with free will, a separate fragment apart from the whole, struggling to control our life and survive as this conceptual form called “me” that we think is real. We fear death and hope that “my” consciousness and my story will continue on in some kind of hopefully pleasant after-life. But this picture of our situation is as ill-conceived as the one our ancestors had not that long ago when they feared that they might fall off the edge of the earth if they sailed out into the ocean. When we truly see that there is no separate, independent, persisting form of any kind — that no actual borders or seams exist between subject and object, self and not-self, birth and death — that there is only this ever-changing, ever-present boundlessness — then there is no body and no mind apart from the totality. Just as there is no edge to the earth, there is no independent or persisting someone who is born and who eventually dies. There is only this inexplicable thorough-going flux or boundless presence, just as it is, from which nothing stands apart — vast emptiness flowering into this ever-changing appearance.
We are each much more (and much less) than what we have imagined ourselves to be. We are each the unnamable presence-awareness that has no center, no owner, no location, no boundary, no form, no beginning and no end. We are each the whole universe and what remains when the universe ends. And at the same time, quite undeniably, we each seem to be playing the part of a particular character, and each of us is apparently watching and acting in a completely unique movie of waking life. Like snowflakes, no two movies are exactly alike. But we might notice that this character is a kind of intermittent, ever-changing, mirage-like appearance that comes and goes, along with all the other characters and the ever-changing scenery in this dream-like movie of waking life, and that it is only in the movie that we seem to be a bunch of separate people with separate bodies, separate minds and separate movies.
We could say that everything is the play of consciousness, whatever “consciousness” is. The truth is, life is a mysterious event that can never really be captured by any scientific or metaphysical formulation. And yet being here now — this present happening — is undeniable, obvious and unavoidable. It is only mysterious when we try to explain it or make sense of it conceptually.
I’ve noticed that whenever suffering or confusion appears, it means that consciousness is lost in thought, entranced in a kind of hypnotic dream-world. It has forgotten that it is the whole ocean, and it is identifying itself as a particular wave and then trying desperately to survive as that wave, trying to be a successful wave. It is even seeking the ocean! When there is a recognition that no wave exists apart from the ocean, when there is no imaginary separation between “me” and this present happening, suffering ends. The problem vanishes, and I vanish as that imaginary somebody who seemingly needs to make something of myself and save the world and figure everything out and shift into some higher state of consciousness. There is simply this present moment, just as it is.
This waking up from the dream of separation can only happen now, not forever-after or in the future, and it isn’t so much something that happens as it is the utter simplicity of Here / Now, just as it is. This simple, bare being is incredibly obvious and actually unavoidable. It seems elusive only because it is so close at hand, so all-inclusive.
It’s not a matter of understanding all this intellectually, but rather, of recognizing what requires no understanding, what is truly inconceivable but at the same time completely obvious and totally unavoidable. It is about recognizing the nonconceptual immediacy that is right here, right now. And actually, this recognition is never not here, for nothing is not this. Even the thoughts and stories that seem to take us away are nothing other than this seamless happening — they are momentary appearances in the ever-changing kaleidoscope of Here / Now — bursts of energy with no inherent form or enduring existence. The Holy Reality is truly unavoidable, even though it can seemingly be obscured or overlooked. Liberation is not the attainment or acquisition of something new, and it is not the result of a cause, but rather, it is the ever-present, undivided immediacy from which nothing stands apart. Liberation is really a non-happening, a shiftless shift, or as they say in Zen, a gateless gate. It is Here / Now.
©2012 Joan Tollifson & Non-Duality Press
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