The ever-present, ever-changing, nonconceptual actuality of the present moment is effortlessly presenting itself right now. This bare being is nondual, undivided, boundless, and without obstruction. But we don’t always seem to be experiencing life in this boundless and unobstructed way because our thoughts and conceptualizations tell a different story.
In reality, even thinking and conceptualizing are an inseparable aspect of this undivided, nondual happening, but it is only in the stories and ideas that thought generates that we seem to be an encapsulated entity fighting to survive in a fragmented world. This delusion is suffering. It’s a mirage with no real substance, but it seems quite real.
In some way, all nondual and spiritual teaching is either a response to this suffering, an attempt to wake up from this delusion and confusion, to see the mirage for what it really is, or else it is a celebration of the Holy Reality that is Here / Now, and often it is both. Meditation teachers, retreat centers, books on radical nondualism and websites such as this one spring up in response to our confusion and suffering much in the same way that various chemicals, hormones, endorphins, antibodies and the like spring up in the body in response to infection, pain or injury. And/or these nondual and spiritual expressions spring up as an act of devotion to the Heart, an act of love and celebration like singing and dancing. And it’s all part of the natural movement of life, happening effortlessly by itself.
There are many different approaches to waking up, many different roads to Here / Now. Of course, paradoxically, we are never not Here / Now, since Here / Now is all there is. But since we don’t always realize that, various roads appear, including the roadless-road that offers nothing to do, and that simply insists uncompromisingly that there is nowhere to go and no one apart from this-here-now to go anywhere else.
The thinking mind loves to categorize and rank everything. We’ve got Zen Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, Vipassana, Advaita, neo-Advaita, radical nonduality, the Power of Now, and on and on, and there are little wars happening on the internet and in social media between “neo” and “traditional” Advaita, or between “sudden” and “gradual” approaches to awakening, or between “be here now” teachings and “this is it” teachings. We identify with a label or a category and then have pissing contests to see who is more nondual than who. But when we wake up to the simplicity of this moment, just as it is, we see the beauty and perfection of everything being exactly the way as it is. We no longer feel compelled to convince the Zen folks that chanting and bowing are unnecessary, or to tell the “be here now” folks that there is no way not to be here now, or to tell the radical nondualistis that practice is as natural as the wind.
Liberation is never really about finding or picking up an answer or a solution, but rather, it is about seeing through the imaginary problem.
What are some of the other common approaches to seeing through the imaginary problem that show up in Buddhism, Advaita, and other kinds of nondual teachings?
One approach is to encourage an awareness of the thoughts and stories that are the basic building blocks of suffering and confusion, and especially the root thought-story that “I” am an independent, separate self authoring “my” life. As we begin to see these stories as stories and as we become aware that thoughts are nothing but conditioned ideas, they lose their power.
Another approach to waking up is to shift attention from thinking to sensing (hearing sounds, seeing shapes and colors, feeling sensations in the body). In bare sensation, there is no dualism, no story, and no self. There is simply this ever-changing, seamless happening. What we think is solid and persisting reveals itself to be ephemeral and insubstantial flux in which nothing exists or persists apart from everything else. If you go deeply into anything that appears (any emotion, any sensation, any form) with awareness, there is nothing there but movement, and at the core, infinite space, empty of form.
Another common road to awakening is to give attention to the space of Here / Now, the context within which everything is occuring. We discover that we are not a discrete unit of consciousness encapsulated inside a body, but that the body, the mind, and this whole universe is in this aware space that is what “I” truly am. Awareness is boundless. It has no location, no owner. All locations, all characters, all events, all experiences appear within it. Awareness beholds it all. And awareness is not separate from what appears within it; awareness is the very substance or nature of what appears. Awareness is like the mirror that is present as every reflection, or the screen that is equally visible (or invisible) as every different scene in the movie, or the ocean that is the water in every different wave. Awareness is the boundlessness, the seamlessness, the wholeness, the emptiness of everything. If you try to grasp awareness, if you look backwards to see what is aware of being aware, you find nothing that can be grasped, and you find everything. You cannot deny being present and aware. It is obvious and unavoidable. Here / Now is the groundless ground, our True Nature.
Another approach to waking up is to consider that everything (awareness, sensations, thoughts, stories, neurosis, suffering, enlightenment – the whole show) is an undivided event that is nothing but continuous change. This seamless and boundless happening is the One Reality (God, Brahman, the Self, Unicity, Consciousness) showing up in endless variations or disguises. There is nothing outside or other than this One-without-a-second. Every thought, every urge, every desire, every intention, every action that happens is the activity of this One Reality. Nothing is not this. Any sense of being a separate, independent entity in control of its own thoughts and actions is an illusion, and what we consider mistakes or distractions are none other than this One Reality. There is only this. By observing carefully, we can see directly that everything is happening by itself, effortlessly, as one seamless movement, and we can see that all of waking life is a kind of dream-like appearance that vanishes moment-to-moment into thin air. Nothing stays the same. Even things that look solid and persisting such as mountains or skyscrapers are actually disintegrating and moving. No form has any discrete, persisting, independent, objective existence. Nothing exists without everything it apparently is not, for like a hologram or the jewels in Indra’s Net, everything is made up of everything else, and every part contains the whole. Unicity is all there is.
Another common pointer is to notice that every night in deep sleep, the whole movie of waking life disappears. All our problems disappear. The one who has the problems disappears. The one who cares about waking up disappears. All experiences disappear. Even the first, barest sense of impersonal presence or awareness as anything perceivable or conceivable disappears. If we say that nothing remains, this nothing is much too much. Deep sleep is the absence of presence and the absence of absence. It is the absence of concern. What remains is nothing perceivable or conceivable. Many names have been given to what remains, but none of these names remain in deep sleep. This absolute emptiness is a pointer to the fact that the entire movie of waking life, all of consciousness, everything perceivable or conceivable, comes and goes. Our biggest mistakes, our greatest enlightenment experience, the whole world drama, all of history, it is all a passing show that appears and disappears very much like a dream. This might initially sound like cause for despair, but any despair is in the movie and pertains to the imaginary character. What we truly are is the absolute emptiness that is consciousness, that is awareness, that is the movie of waking life, that is deep sleep, and that is what remains when all of this is no more.
Another path to awakening is devotion, which might also be regarded as the natural expression of awakening. Traditionally, devotion is often thought of rather narrowly as devotion to a teacher or a guru, but I think of it in a much broader way as falling in love with everything, seeing the Holy Reality everywhere, recognizing perfection in imperfection, being grateful for every moment of life, just as it is. The nature of awareness is unconditional love. Love is the devotional aspect of awareness. The word devotion suggests an ecstatic and passionate response to life, a kind of abandon, a willingness to be foolish, vulnerable, exposed, open, naked, unrestrained, wild. It is a willingness to lose control (which we never really had to begin with). Devotion is the Open Heart. And the Open Heart is simply another name for Here / Now, the Tao, the Way It Is.
Some of these roads to awakening seem to involve a doing (looking, seeing, inquiring, questioning, investigating, meditating), but paradoxically, this doing is almost always an undoing of an unnecessary doing, a relaxing of the grasping mind, an invitation to stop chasing the carrot, to simply be this still-point of Here / Now that never comes, never goes, and never stays the same. So although “practices” such as meditation or inquiry may seem to be a kind of doing, in fact, true practice is really a falling away of all unnecessary effort.
Other teachings point to this same relaxation by simply denying that there is anything to do or not do other than exactly what is already happening, since this is all there is, and there is no way not to be what is.
There are many ways in which waking up happens, and there are many ways to express this wakefulness, but these different roads and expressions all begin and end Here / Now, and they all lead to the same essential discovery that there is no further and that the One Reality has never been absent. Boundless being is all there is, and all there is, is this. Liberation is the recognition of what is always already the case. Whatever roads show up, they are simply another appearance like the trees, the clouds, the rain, the wind, the stars. None of it is going anywhere. The problem is imaginary, and the one who seemingly needs to wake up is nothing more than a mirage.
You may think there really is a problem—that “you” are tied up in mental knots, tensed up and contracted, stuck in all kinds of neurotic patterns. You may think that “your life” is an imperfect mess. And you may imagine that liberation would be the arrival of a totally new and improved you without any of these messy and unpleasant qualities. But liberation is actually the recognition that nothing needs to be different in any way from exactly how it is, that the movie of waking life will always include a mix of clear and cloudy weather, that none of it is personal. By looking closely, you may find that there is no “you” separate from the rest of the universe, that the clouds are inseparable from the clearings, that there is only thorough-going flux, that all apparent forms (including the knots, the patterns, the obstructions, and the one who seems to have them) have no actual existence.
The ever-present, ever-changing, nonconceptual actuality of the present moment is effortlessly presenting itself right now. Here / Now is the boundlessness that has no opposite and no other. This is it.
Joan Tollifson invites us to wake up to the aliveness and freedom of open, aware presence, and to discover the simplicity of being this moment, just as it is. Joan has an affinity with Buddhism and Advaita but belongs to no particular tradition. She holds meetings on nonduality and living in presence and is the author of Bare-Bones Meditation: Waking Up from the Story of My Life, Awake in the Heartland, Painting the Sidewalk with Water: Talks and Dialogs about Nonduality, Nothing to Grasp, and a forthcoming book about aging and death. Joan lives in southern Oregon. www.joantollifson.com