Direct Experiencing

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This letter was shared on Joan Tollifson’s Substack (January 2024)


Back from my annual at-home New Year’s retreat:

I had a marvelous retreat—not without a few dark moments, inner and outer, but it all belonged. I was viscerally reminded of how nourishing it is to take a number of days to be off-line, phone turned off, no meetings, no social engagements, no email, nothing to do, nowhere to go, simply immersed in the fullness of being alive, in devotion to uninterpreted, nonconceptual, sensory-energetic experiencing and simple presence. Of course, thinking and interpreting also happened, as they inevitably do, all part of the dance, but those weren’t the primary focus.

Lots of timeless time was devoted to sitting in silence either on my meditation cushion or in one of my comfortable chairs or walking in silence in the nearby parks. I dipped occasionally into a few nondual books, took a few photographs out my living room window of shapes that interested me, wrote a few words by hand, even watched a few episodes on my iPad one night of Slow Horses (a suspenseful darkly comedic British spy drama). I observed the effects of all these various different activities on my nervous system, mood, thoughts, behaviors and dreams. And above all else, I devoted myself to simply (effortlessly, wordlessly) being here and experiencing this one bottomless moment in silence, without any agenda.

This year’s retreat has inspired me to take one day a week in silence, and I’m also planning now to do a longer retreat like this twice a year instead of just once. I very highly recommend it! 

Direct Experiencing (written the day after retreat):

The spiritual life is primarily about direct experiencing. It’s not primarily about philosophy, ideas or thinking, and it’s definitely not about beliefs. But we’re deeply habituated as humans to focus on the realm of abstract conceptual thought. And, of course, that realm has its place—we can’t function without it. But spirituality of the kind that interests me invites a different possibility. It’s an approach that finds liberation not in perfecting the little “me,” but rather, in discovering that we are actually much more and much less than this phantom, and that what we are seeking is right here. It’s about open listening, spaciousness, groundlessness, cluelessness, wonder, curiosity, and devotion to the actuality of here-now, just as it is.

This isn’t about escaping our humanity or always being in a state of bliss. We cannot avoid pain and painful circumstances or the vulnerabilities of these fragile human bodyminds. And no matter how much humans may evolve as a species to greater degrees of sensitivity, the world will never be a flawless utopia with vegetarian tigers and only “nice people” behaving exactly as we think they should.

But in this moment NOW, the one and only moment, there is the possibility of waking up to a wholeness in which nothing needs to be different from how it is. There is the possibility of discovering that we are not bound or lacking in the ways we imagine.

We discover this by giving open attention to our actual direct experiencing and to the felt sense of presence or simple being. We can discover experientially that nothing stays the same for even an instant; that everything is dissolving in the very instant it appears; that nothing solid, substantial or persisting actually exists in the way we think it does; that we are at once no-thing and everything. We can discover that thought always gives us a partial, over-simplified, incomplete, frozen abstraction of what is actually ALIVE (unresolvable, ungraspable, unpindownable). We can discover that the nature of this wholeness, this undivided presence, is unconditional love—that it is always allowing everything to be just as it is, always allowing everything to dissolve and disappear, never clinging to anything, and never seeing anything as other than itself.

What we’re seeking is always right here, but paradoxically, there does seem to be a process of discovery and realization. And as many great teachers have pointed out, much of the transformative process of seeing through the false and relaxing into the real happens outside of our conscious awareness—in other words, we don’t always know it’s happening. Thought is not directing it, and thought is not capable of accurately assessing how it’s going. Transformation is nonconceptual and inconceivable. It’s not linear. And it’s not personal. It’s a happening of the whole universe.

Reading, thinking, listening to talks—all of that has its place. But the most important work happens in silence, in BEING, in experiencing—feeling, sensing, awaring—knowingly being this presence that we are and that everything is, and also discovering that we can actually never not be this. This includes absolutely everything.

We tend to be uncomfortable with absorption in the nonverbal, experiential dimension because it feels unpredictable and out of our control. Language, thinking and conceptualizing give us a sense of control, a sense that we know what this is, where we are, and what’s happening. But the truth is, we don’t. Thought—posing as “me,” the illusory separate, encapsulated, autonomous self—is never in control. It is a powerless mirage.

The only real power is elsewhere (i.e., right here). It is the power of life itself. Of course, life includes thinking. It includes everything. But thinking can never capture or control it. We, as this boundless and impersonal aware presence, this seamless and centerless present experiencing, are not other than this power, but it is not a power that thought controls. We, as apparent individuals, are not doing it; it is doing us. And we are it. There is nothing else here. Language just can’t ever quite say it!

But we can KNOW it—in fact, we always are knowing and being it—it just can’t ever be put into words or ideas, not really. So when we try to “get it” mentally, it never quite lines up, and we end up confused and stuck in apparent paradoxes, trying to reconcile what thought has seemingly divided up and set in opposition. But when we turn to presence and direct experiencing, all the problems, confusions and apparent conundrums evaporate. Nothing is actually in opposition to anything else. No-thing ever actually forms in any separate, persisting or independent way.

Presence is most intimate, closer than close, all-inclusive, limitless, unbound. It is the no-thing-ness, the aliveness, the non-substantiality, the radiance of everything. We discover this by simply giving open attention to whatever is showing up—present experiencing, the sensory-energetic immediacy of this very moment. Hearing sounds, seeing colors and shapes, feeling sensations in the body.

Thought, identified as “me,” may try to do this in a very heavy-handed, result-oriented way—which is how we often habitually go about things, employing effort and will-power and then judging how well or how poorly we are doing, while striving for some imagined future perfection. But that approach tends to reinforce the very delusion it is attempting to wake up from, the thought-sense of encapsulation and separation, the belief that we are fundamentally deficient and in need of something different and better to happen so we can finally be okay. But the little “me” is never okay, or not for long. The only actual okay-ness is in the wholeness, the unconditional love, the total acceptance of what is, and the recognition that EVERYTHING is included, that EVERYTHING is this.

So instead of trying really hard to shift the focus of attention and then keep it shifted, all of which is a losing battle, I recommend a more relaxed and playful approach—exploration rather than practice, with no goal in mind. And if a goal should appear in the mind, simply seeing that for what it is—a habitual, conditioned thought-pattern. And it might be discovered that even this thought-pattern is nothing other than this presence, this no-thing-ness, this aliveness appearing momentarily as that thought-pattern. Nothing needs to be different from exactly how it is. And nothing will ever stay the same. Sometimes the weather is clear and sunny, sometimes it is cloudy or stormy. It all belongs. Everything is included. Nothing is personal.

So relax and enjoy the show, and if you can’t relax, be tense! That, too, is simply another momentary impersonal shape this presence is taking. And whenever it invites you, explore the possibility of giving open, relaxed attention, with curiosity and wonder, to whatever is showing up—the colors, shapes, sounds, textures, tastes and smells, somatic and kinesthetic sensations, movements of light and shadow—this whole happening in all its infinitely varied detail, as well as the felt sense of presence itself. And when thoughts arise, as they almost certainly will, maybe they can be explored, without logging into the content, as simply ungraspable energetic pulsations, gone before they arrive—knowing that ALL of this, thoughts included, is what is—an indivisible whole in which nothing exists independently of everything else. It can’t be pulled apart. It can’t be other than it is. And how it is can never be captured by thought. The words can only point to what is wordless and utterly free—the infinite here and now, utterly immediate and ever-present, but utterly unresolvable and never the same way twice.


In truth we are not separate from each other or from the world, from the whole earth, the sun or moon or billions of stars, not separate from the entire universe. Listening silently in quiet wonderment, without knowing anything, there is just one mysteriously palpitating aliveness.

–  Toni Packer


I wish you all a truly wonder-full 2024. It promises to be quite a wild year in so many ways, but remember, nothing is ever what it seems to be or what we think it is, and we can’t have the light without the dark, nor can they ever be pulled apart. We contain it all. Awareness resists nothing and allows it all to appear and disappear, as everything instantly and endlessly always does, vastly beyond our attempts to capture or control it. And no two people will see any of it in exactly the same way, so how solid is it?

Love to all….


Hear a lovely reading from Joan in our end-of-year Sounds of SAND Episode Silent Light.

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