Friday, September 28, 2012

How Simple Can This Be? Guest Teaching by Joan Tollifson

WELCOME TO THE TWENTY-SEVENTH EDITION OF OUR GUEST TEACHING SERIES.  First off, let me say how pleased I am that you've shown so much interest in our two newest features, the First Chapter Preview, and the new Beyond Recovery blog.  Both did very well over the last couple of weeks.  We're introducing something fresh for this fortnight that I hope we'll see a lot of: the Double Feature!  What I mean is that whenever possible I'll host both an article by our guest, and a book excerpt.  Last night I signed up Greg Goode to do this for us in late winter, when his next book, Emptiness and Joyful Freedom comes out.  Joan Tollifson's kickoff combination post-and-excerpt is a terrific way to start.

I MET JOAN JUST THIS YEAR, but I've followed her work for quite a while.  I first started reading her and visiting her old website (or one of them!) several years ago when she was living in Chicago.  I later heard great things about her from a guy who completely changed my life, Scott Kiloby.  Joan is now in Oregon, my old stomping ground.  She's been teaching since 1996, which is a l-o-n-g time in contemporary Nonduality. 

I KNOW JOAN THE SAME WAY I know most people in Nonduality--via email.  All of my friends these days are fellow writers.  I talk to some of them on the phone now and again, or better yet, Skype, but given that we are all writers, email is by far our most common form of communication.   I have exchanged hundreds of emails with one writer in particular whom I've never once spoken to orally.  It works; why fix it?

WHAT I HAVE FOUND in exchanging a number of emails with Joan is that she is precisely like her books: clear, direct and funny, all wrapped up in language that is both elegant and efficient.  My Amazon review of Nothing to Grasp gives her high praise and she deserves it.  

A QUICK WORD ABOUT MY BOOK AND DVD REVIEWS.  A lot of people read them and write me about them.  You may have noticed that I don't have any negative ones.  It's not that I never read a spiritual title that I don't love, it's just that when I do, I don't review it.  If I can't say something good about a book, I say nothing.  I might have misunderstood the author; it might have been an off night for me; if there is some misunderstanding, then it could be entirely mine.  It's just too easy to tear stuff down; I'm not in that business.  My level of enthusiasm for a book or film--from moderately high to completely bowled over--will always be apparent within the review itself.

JOAN TOLLIFSON has an affinity with Advaita, Zen and radical nonduality, but she belongs to no tradition or lineage. Joan explores nonduality in the context of everyday life, drawing from her own experiences with addiction, disability, and other human issues. She has been holding meetings since 1996 and is the author of Bare-Bones Meditation: Waking Up from the Story of My Life (1996), Awake in the Heartland: The Ecstasy of What Is (2003), Painting the Sidewalk with Water: Talks and Dialogs about Nonduality (2010), Nothing to Grasp (2012), and Death: The End of Self-Improvement (still in progress and slated for publication early in 2013). Joan has lived in California, New York and Chicago, and is currently living in southern Oregon.

LET ME NOTE that Joan will be holding meetings in Ashland, Oregon in October and December, and will be doing the same in London in November.    Details can be found in the links at the end of the post.  For some writers we work to scrape up a decent selection.  For Joan, we've had to pare them down to keep them manageable.


Joan Tollifson

What is happening in this bodymind right now? Reading words on a computer screen, hearing sounds, seeing shapes and colors, breathing. And what else is going on? Is there expectation, curiosity, excitement, boredom, restlessness? Can we take a moment to pause and be aware of how it is right now, without trying to modify or correct it in any way, but simply being awake to the bare actuality of this moment, just as it is?

Traffic sounds, bird songs, an airplane flying over, wind rustling the leaves, a television in another room, children’s voices, a dog barking. Shapes, colors. The movement of breathing, the sensation of contact with the chair, a cool breeze gently touching the skin, a tingling in the feet, maybe an uneasiness in the belly or a tightness in the throat, perhaps a vague sense of anxiety or discontent, these words registering in the mind.

Does this present happening take effort, or is it all happening effortlessly by itself?  

This moment is utterly simple and straightforward, totally obvious, completely unavoidable, effortlessly being just exactly the way it is, however that is. It may be painful or unpleasant, but there is nothing confusing about the present moment until we start thinking.

Then suddenly we begin to think (and believe) that we are a separate fragment disconnected from the whole. We feel lost and lacking. It seems as if we need to figure everything out and get somewhere better than where we are. We try desperately to improve ourselves and to succeed at being somebody. We fear death, imagining this bodymind to be something solid and persisting, something separate from the rest of the universe. We crave what we don’t have and resist what we are. Fearing the thought-created specter of meaninglessness, we search desperately for meaning, and the more we search for it, the more meaningless everything seems. 

We try to think our way to liberation, and the more we think, the more tangled up in perplexity and uncertainty we seem to get. We try to get rid of the self but can’t seem to do it. We try to have a nondual experience (whatever we imagine that might be) and then we try to make that experience last forever, but instead what seems to show up again and again is disappointment and dissatisfaction, frustration and doubt.

Rather than trying to fix all of this or come up with some comforting new philosophy or some inspiring plan of action, can we wake up instead to what is utterly simple and totally effortless, the happening of this moment, just as it is?

Is it possible that waking up here and now could be the gateless gate, the golden key, true enlightenment, total liberation?

Of course, enlightenment and liberation and golden keys are loaded ideas that can instantly trigger a kind of hopeful excitement and expectation, so rather than getting lost in wild ideas about something spectacular and imaginary, let’s come back to the bare simplicity of right here, right now.

How is it?

Instead of rushing in to provide a label or a conceptual description, can we simply be awake to the bare actuality of this present moment, the wordless reality?

If the mind says, “Okay, this is nice, but what’s next? Where’s the enlightenment and the total liberation?” – can we hear those thoughts as thoughts and come back to the nonconceptual simplicity of sounds, bodily sensations and breathing? Can we feel the desire for something bigger and better, or the urge to get away from what’s here now, and simply allow those feelings and sensations to be here?

If we’re interested in exploring the nature of reality, rather than adopting the ideas of others, can we explore our actual direct experience here and now?

There is undeniably variation and diversity in this present happening (different sounds, sensations, thoughts, feelings, shapes, colors), but is there any actual separation between hearing and seeing and thinking, or between awareness and the content of awareness, or is it all showing up together as one whole, seamless moving picture, ever-changing but always Here / Now?

If you look for the one who is supposedly “having” this present experience, the one who is supposedly “doing” the hearing and the thinking, can you actually find anyone or anything at the helm?  Can you even find a helm or a center? There may be an idea that there is “me” encapsulated inside “my body” looking out at “the world” and steering this bodymind through life, authoring my thoughts, making my decisions, choosing how to live my life. This “me” is conceived of as a kind of soul-like entity living inside the body, an independent unit of consciousness. But can it be seen right now that this separate, encapsulated entity is only an idea, a mental image, a thought, a story about what’s going on here that has been learned? 

Can you see that even your “body” is also an idea, a mental image, a conceptual abstraction of something that is actually nothing but continuous movement inseparable from everything that is supposedly not your body? If that sounds far-fetched, close your eyes and give your full attention to sounds and somatic sensations. As you do that, what happens to the apparent solidity and separateness of “your body”?  Can you actually find a place in your direct experience where “you” begin and end, an actual boundary-line between inside of you and outside of you? You can think of a boundary. You can picture (or imagine) one. But can you actually find it? Does it actually exist? Are the traffic sounds inside you or outside you? Is there a difference?

Of course, functionally, you have a sense of location and boundaries and identity with a particular body, and this will always be here as needed (unless you have a serious brain injury), so that you will know your name and how to cut up a carrot without chopping off your fingers, and whose mouth to put the food in, and how to distinguish between your dog and your computer. Waking up to seamless, boundless unicity doesn’t mean you will make the mistake of eating dog poop for lunch or walking in front of a bus because “all is one.” 

Waking up to unicity simply means not being fooled by thoughts and concepts, not mistaking a mirage for reality. And waking up only happens now. There is no such thing as a permanently awake person. So don’t imagine that “you” will cross some magical finish-line after which mirages no longer show up and being fooled never happens again. Being fooled is no problem unless thought is taking it personally and identifying with it as “my” problem that means something “about me.”

Thinking is an aspect of this seamless, nondual happening. It happens automatically. You don’t even know what your next thought will be. Thoughts pop up, unbidden – sometimes useful and creative thinking, sometimes mindless gum-chewing type thinking, and sometimes the me-centered, obsessive, confused, tail-chasing, problematic thinking that generates the dualistic mirage and brings with it suffering and ever-more confusion: “I’ve ruined my whole life, nobody loves me, I’m a failure, the world is going to hell, I’m right and you’re wrong, you’ve ruined my life, I’m not enlightened and I probably never will be, how can I stop feeling anxious all the time? What if…? If only…. Maybe I should…..” 

We can’t make ourselves stop thinking these kinds of painful thoughts. That doesn’t work. But if we begin to pay careful attention to what is actually happening (as opposed to what we think is happening), we begin to wake up from the hypnotic entrancement in thought and belief.  We begin to notice how thinking creates a virtual reality, a mental abstraction, a map-world – and we begin to question our thoughts, and to realize that thoughts are never absolutely true, and in many cases, they are not even relatively true. We begin to notice and be aware of the difference between thinking, on the one hand, and perceiving or sensing on the other. We notice that sensing can include pain, but that it takes thinking to suffer or to become confused. And it takes thinking to materialize the mirage of a separate self.

Thinking is not some evil force that is opposed to unicity. But it is only in the virtual reality created by thought that we seem to have dualism, conflict, confusion and separation. This is why many teachings focus so much on being aware of thoughts as thoughts. But it’s helpful to recognize that even the appearance of dualism is nothing but unicity appearing as dualism. Thought is not an enemy that we must banish, and waking up doesn’t mean never thinking again. It simply means waking up in this moment here and now from entrancement in that virtual reality.

What is it that wakes up? What is it that sees thoughts as thoughts? What is beholding the whole movie of waking life, including the character we identify as “me” and the ever-changing story-lines and dramas? Where is all of this occurring? Is awareness inside the body, or is the body appearing in awareness? Does awareness have a size, a shape, a gender, an age?

When we first wake up in the morning, it actually takes a split second to remember our name, our role and our story. Sometimes we can actually see that reconstruction happening. And then every night in deep sleep, it all disappears again. The world disappears, our story disappears, our problems disappear, “I” disappear as the one who cares about all this – everything perceivable and conceivable disappears. How solid and substantial and real can all the forms and events in this movie of waking life actually be, and how real is the “me” at the center of it all?

Waking up to boundlessness and seamlessness doesn’t mean we dismiss everyday life or ignore the world as “just an illusion.” But we begin to see it all in a bigger context, in a more fluid way, without imagining that form is something solid and fixed and “out there” apart from this awaring presence. And we no longer imagine that this awaring presence is encapsulated inside a separate bodymind, or that the imaginary thinker is in control of “my life.”

Whenever we feel filled with doubt and confusion, I recommend letting go of everything that can be doubted and discovering what remains. What is it that we are absolutely certain about? What is it that we cannot possibly doubt? What is it that requires no believing in order to be?

We cannot deny being here now, can we? And by that, I mean this impersonal awaring presence. We can doubt any idea about who or what is present or aware, but we cannot doubt the bare fact of being here and knowing we are here. And we cannot deny this present happening (hearing, seeing, sensing, thinking). We can doubt any description or explanation of this happening, but not the bare actually or suchness of it.

When we “come back” to this that requires no belief and is impossible to doubt, the simple actuality Here / Now (which, of course, we have never really left), there is no self, no other, no dualism, no problem. There is simply this, just as it is.

By giving attention to our actual present moment experiencing, we begin to see that there is simply this ever-present, ever-changing happening, that there is no one at the center of this present experiencing (even if it sometimes seems that there is). We see that this endless unfolding never goes anywhere, for it is always Here / Now. This present happening is obvious and unavoidable, but at the same time, it cannot be grasped.

And we don’t need to grasp it. Unicity isn’t something we have to “get.”  It is what we are. It is all there is.

But whenever we imagine that we are separate from unicity, we instantly feel alienated, vulnerable and lacking. We begin to seek what we imagine is missing. We are like a wave seeking the ocean and insisting that we have never experienced water. We imagine some fantastic state of consciousness that we think others have arrived at, a state beyond all suffering and confusion, and we want to arrive at this mythical promised land. Chasing after that promised land is like running towards a mirage-lake in the desert sands. It is hopeless.

But that’s not really bad news, for when we wake up from this false picture of reality, we realize that nothing is missing, nothing is broken, and there is no one to be enlightened or unenlightened, lost or found. There has never been anything other than the ocean waving. Even running towards a mirage-lake is nothing but ocean waving.

This realization is sometimes called awakening or enlightenment or liberation, but these words create a lot of confusion, because the mind habitually tends to picture some kind of achievement or permanent experience, and it tends to take this imaginary achievement personally and imagine that there is “me” who either is or isn’t enlightened. And that’s delusion. We’re back to that absurdly comic adventure of the wave seeking the ocean and evaluating which waves are the wettest.

Enlightenment isn’t a perpetually sunny day. No sunny day lasts forever, nor does any cloudy day. And there is no “me” going back and forth between clear skies and cloudy ones, or stabilizing permanently in the sunshine. There is simply weather, with no owner, no doer behind it. The clouds and the sunshine are one undivided happening, like the heads and tails of a coin.

Unicity includes everything. It includes light and dark, up and down, enlightenment and delusion, clarity and confusion, thinking and sensing, dreaming and waking, practicing and not practicing. It includes deep sleep and the movie (or multiple movies) of waking life. It includes imagination and fantasy. It is everything, and everything is it. There is nothing outside unicity, and there is nothing that is not unicity.

That doesn’t mean Hitler was enlightened or that we can’t distinguish between a chair and a table. It just means that what we functionally and conventionally refer to and think of as Hitler or a table or a chair is not actually a solid thing that exists independently of everything else. Every apparent form is nothing but movement and change, and everything is inseparable from everything else. There is no “me” apart from Hitler, and there is no enduring “somebody” to be forever enlightened or forever deluded. The only forever is now, and now doesn’t ever stay the same.

That can all sound very heady and abstract and mystifying if we’re hearing it only with the intellect and trying to figure it out with thought. But if we simply pay attention to present moment experiencing, it becomes more and more obvious in ever-more subtle ways that this is how it is. But it doesn’t become obvious “to me.” That’s thinking again, inserting an imaginary subject, an imaginary actor apart from the action, and in reality (in our actual experiencing), no such thing actually exists, not ever. In direct experience, before we think about it, there is no seer apart from what is seen, there is simply undivided seeing.

Nonduality isn’t about “me” becoming somebody who no longer gets confused or no longer has any human flaws. It doesn’t mean “me” turning into someone who is in some special state of mindful presence 24/7. It doesn’t mean that “I” have no self anymore. It doesn’t mean that “I” am “somebody” who is constantly aware of being nobody, or constantly aware of nondual boundlessness as some kind of special experience, or never again fooled by mirages or never again caught-up in a movie-story of encapsulation or separation. The very notion of a permanently enlightened person is predicated on the very misunderstandings it claims to have risen above.

So, can we stop trying to figure all this out mentally and simply come back to the utter simplicity of where we are: the sounds of traffic, the sensations in the body, the taste of coffee, the rise and fall of breathing, the cool breeze blowing in through the window?

And if the mind says, “that’s just the phenomenal manifestation, that’s not enough,” is it possible to hear these thoughts as thoughts and not get hypnotized by the picture they paint?  In that imaginary picture painted by thought, there is separation, dualism and lack. And there is “me” wanting something more, something special. But in the sound of the traffic, there is no me and no separation. There is only the nondual absolute, just as it is.

So if we find ourselves lost in thought, racing on the mental treadmill, chasing after phantasms and mirages, is it possible to wake up, to stop running toward something or away from something, to simply be present right here, right now? To feel the breathing and see the raindrops glistening on the green leaves and the exquisite cigarette butt floating in a pool of rainwater in the gutter. And maybe to investigate the sense of dissatisfaction and restlessness and unease that is at the root of so much of our human activity. Is it possible to allow this dissatisfaction to be here, to simply feel the sensations without running away or seeking a solution, to see the thoughts that are involved as thoughts, to allow it all to unfold and reveal and dissolve itself, effortlessly? 

In that simple wakefulness, open to whatever is here, we can notice that everything is included Here / Now. Even judgments and desires, even resistance and seeking, even the human mind spinning those familiar thoughts about “This isn’t it” and “I’ve ruined my whole life,” all of that is allowed to be here, and all of it is simply another momentary appearance, another momentary shape that unicity is taking. None of it is personal. None of it is really a problem.

When this presence is awake to itself, there is love for everything. This unconditional love, this boundless awareness, this open heart dissolves hatred and ignorance. It dissolves them not by condemning them or fighting against them or trying to control them, but by accepting them as impersonal happenings and by shedding light on how life actually is (rather than getting lost in thoughts about how everything could be, should be, might be, or used to be).

And the most important thing to remember is that waking up always boils down to right here, right now. It is never somewhere else or yesterday or at some future time when conditions are different or better. It is just this, exactly as it is.

How simple can this be?



Here's an audio / video link page from Joan's website: that has links to all the audio/video I know about. 

All four of Joan's published books are listed here on the books page of her website:

Other articles by Joan can be found here, on the "Outpourings" page of her website:

Housekeeping Notes:

Let me welcome Montenegro as the 102nd country to join the Awakening Clarity family.   

Do join us on October 12, when Mukti will be our guest teacher for the next post.  Posts come out every other Friday.

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