I open the window and the smell of blossoms wafts in. A friend calls, someone whose intelligence and sensitivity I greatly respect, someone who follows climate science very closely. She tells me that she thinks the human species has perhaps ten years left, twenty at most, and that what’s coming soon is a rapid escalation in both the intensity and the geographic spread of what is already happening in many parts of the world: catastrophic weather events, floods, droughts, water shortages, climate refugees streaming across borders, conflicts, wars, violence, extremism of all kinds, a collapse of basic law and order. According to my friend, even if everyone in the whole world woke up tomorrow and did everything possible to reduce our carbon footprint and our methane output, the science shows that it’s already too late. We’re past the point of no return.
The bulk of this is not new information to me, although the time-lines my friend offers are shorter than those I’ve previously heard. And if climate change doesn’t get us first, some kind of nuclear war or catastrophe seems increasingly inevitable. This doomsday scenario has been in the air for as long as I can remember, but suddenly, with this conversation, the apparently looming reality of this devastation captures my attention. It’s scary to imagine living through this collapse and the horrors of it, witnessing it, feeling it, experiencing it. It will involve great pain and suffering. It’s scary at my age to imagine being an old person, older than I am now, increasingly incapacitated and vulnerable, in the midst of this kind of collapse.
Over the next few days and nights after this conversation, I notice that vague feelings of depression and fear are passing through repeatedly like waves on the ocean. I feel heavy, weighted down. I lie awake in bed one night staring into the darkness.
But I notice again and again that it’s all happening in my imagination. And I know from long experience that the way we imagine certain things is never how they are when they actually happen (if they happen at all). For example, I was expecting the radiation and chemotherapy that I recently went through to be much worse than they actually were, and in the end, I found my cancer to be in many ways a blessing—an awakening experience. Of course, it also involved pain and discomfort, and it might still kill me, but the point is, it wasn’t all bad and it wasn’t how I imagined it would be.
No one actually knows for sure what will or won’t happen next. Science typically assumes that the universe is made of matter that follows certain physical laws, but perhaps this universe (or so-called matter) is not what we think it is. Perhaps this intelligence-energy, this subatomic-intergalactic unfathomability and indeterminacy, this vibrant dance of experiencing, this play of consciousness is not actually bound by these laws. We don’t really know. Didn’t the biologist Rupert Sheldrake once suggest that the laws of nature are more like habit patterns than laws? Many people think a mass spiritual awakening will somehow turn the tide of climate change and save humanity, maybe by changing the universe in some way that seems utterly impossible if we think of the universe as dead matter bound by certain fixed and predictable laws rather than as a mutable and effervescent dance of consciousness.
But still, my rational mind argues, while no one can predict the future with 100% accuracy, when a person has Stage 4 metastatic pancreatic, lung, liver and bone cancer, their chances of survival are pretty much zero, and that’s basically the situation the human species is in right now as I understand the scientific evidence. Do we just ignore this or pretend it isn’t happening?
Lots of people, enamored with technology and imagining it to be more powerful than it probably really is, expect that some technological breakthrough will save the day, and I suppose nothing is impossible, however far-fetched and unlikely that scenario seems to me.
My friend says these are all forms of magical thinking and denial. She says the political right is in denial that this is even happening, which means any intelligent action is effectively blocked, and the progressive political left is in denial of another form—they’re like a doctor who refuses to stop suggesting different treatment options to a patient with an incurable cancer, instead of recognizing that it is time for hospice, time for comfort care, time for surrender, time to welcome death, which is, after all, a vital and indispensable part of life.
But what would that mean in terms of humanity as a whole, to move from trying to treat the incurable cancer of global warming, if it is incurable, to being (metaphorically) on hospice, welcoming death rather than fearing it and trying desperately to stave it off? And are we really at the point where no treatment can make a significant difference? Many highly intelligent people who study climate science seem to think we’re not. People like Bill McKibben, Paul Hawken and Naomi Klein don’t seem to have thrown in the towel yet. Paul Hawken has a new book out called Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, a book that I hear is filled with ideas for what we could do. And Naomi Klein chose to have a child while researching her book on climate change, which would suggest that she doesn’t think the worst is inevitable. Are they all in denial? Maybe they are. I don’t know.
Even if the human species and many other species are wiped out, and even if that annihilation is preceded by a period of catastrophic global suffering, or even if we have a nuclear war, who can say that this is a “bad” thing or a tragedy, or even that it has any more substance or inherent reality than a nightmare or a dream? Geologists tell us that there have been many periods when the earth was too cold or too hot to sustain life. And many life forms have come and gone. The dinosaurs were wiped out, which might have seemed tragic to them, if they’d had human minds with which to think about it, but their extinction opened the way for something new, and eventually, for us. Who can say the same might not be true if we wipe ourselves out? Life is continually morphing into something new, all of it one whole seamless movement in which nothing is ever really wasted. Nothing holds still. Impermanence is so thorough-going that no “thing” ever even forms or persists to be impermanent. The whole dance is without added meaning or need of meaning beyond its simple BEING. It seems otherwise because we are so used to mistaking our mental maps and explanations for the living actuality.
Death is a vital part of this living reality, and death is moment-to-moment, not some future event. The form each instant takes dies instantly and the universe is born anew. Creation and destruction, birth and death—this is the rhythm of life. Unicity is vibrantly alive, constantly dying and being born.
In the virtual reality created by thought and conceptualization, there seem to be solid, persisting, separate forms that exist independently of consciousness, “out there” somewhere in what we think of as space and time. “I” seem to be a separate bodymind, vulnerable to pain, disability and discomfort of all kinds and ever in danger of being extinguished. As the apparently separate self, I live in perpetual anxiety and fear about what might happen next, alleviated to some degree by hopeful fantasies and wishful thinking. But ALL of this is a dance of consciousness. Space and time are creations of consciousness, ways of experiencing.
The actual reality is timeless (eternal) and spaceless (infinite), i.e. Now-Here. Every time of day, every season, every age, every location shows up Here-Now. We can never leave Here-Now. There is no edge where Here begins or ends, and nothing ever happens before or after Now. There is only Here-Now. This is our actual experience. But we ignore our immediate, direct experiencing in favor of the conceptual map-world, because the map gives us a sense of control, of certainty, of knowing what’s going on. Whereas, if we try to grasp this immediacy, this living reality, this awaring presence, this present experiencing, it cannot be grasped.
But when we finally relax into groundlessness, it turns out to be freedom itself. So-called liberation is simply seeing the false as false and not grasping the Truth by trying to formulate it or pin it down. Liberation isn’t about having the right answer or the right view, but rather about waking up from all the answers and views—not landing anywhere. Being this moment, just as it is.
And, of course, sometimes thinking about the future is a functional necessity, a perfectly appropriate activity here-now—if we are planning a trip, organizing an event, trying to correct some form of social injustice, taking care of our car, saving money for retirement, or hoping to prevent catastrophic climate change from wiping us out—these activities all require an ability to imagine and plan for the future. And that’s not a problem as long as we know that the future may not go according to plan.
In the morning, I go for a walk and delight in the blossoms everywhere, the tiny new green leaves, the sparkling raindrops on the blossoms and leaves, the bracing cold wet air. I feel full of joy and love and fresh energy.
I hold an on-line meeting, do some writing, cook a meal and eat, read a bit. Later in the day, I am bone-tired, utterly worn out, probably from the lingering effects of radiation and chemotherapy. I take a nap. In the evening, I watch a crime drama on TV. Afterwards, I sit in silence, doing nothing, simply being present, listening to the frogs and the faint hum of traffic on the interstate.
I notice, on the one hand, how easily attention gets totally absorbed in the dramas and stories that it focuses on, like my imagination of the end times, and on the other hand, I can see how prone we humans are to denial in the face of certain realities.
I also notice that there is a common factor in every different experience, whether it is a wave of joy or a wave of fear, an expanded experience or a contracted one. That common factor is consciousness—the present-ness or presence of everything—the ever-present here-now, the awaring presence being and beholding it all. The content of consciousness is ever-changing, but the vastness itself (consciousness, intelligence-energy, unicity, no-thing-ness) is ever-present as everything and no-thing at all. And the more closely I tune into the actuality of this living reality instead of my conceptual maps of it, the more empty of solidity and the more open and spacious and subtle and unknowable and radiant and wondrous it is. The no-thing-ness IS the wonder, the radiance, the effervescence, the aliveness!
This body, this room, the furniture in this room, the image of the whole earth as seen from space, the story of Joan, the story of climate change, the story of the world, the stories told by geologists, by physicists, by biologists, by climate scientists…the stories told by astrologers and poets and mystics…the political stories, the economic stories, the celebrity stories, the endless stories in the daily news of human cruelty and human kindness, of despair and hope…the subatomic particles and the distant galaxies…all of this appears Here-Now in consciousness. It is made of consciousness. We never actually experience anything outside of, or other than, consciousness.
How real or substantial are the ever-changing forms that appear to persist, the stories, the maps, the way it all seems to be (if we don’t look too closely)? Or maybe a better question would be, what about all of that is real (if anything)?
To paraphrase a famous saying from Vedanta, the world is unreal, consciousness alone is real, consciousness is the world. As consciousness itself, the world is real. A mirage or a dream is real as a mirage or a dream. It’s a real experience. It’s not real as what it SEEMS to be. “The world” that we conceptualize, imagine, project, remember and believe in—the supposedly observer-independent world that we think exists outside of consciousness—that is illusory. The world that we actually experience is an ever-changing, vibrational dance of sensations, a waving movement of consciousness—and that is reality itself.
In recognizing this, we may still have our opinions about politics, economics, climate change and everything else—that’s all part of the dance—but we hold it all more lightly. We realize we don’t know how the universe “should” be or what “should” happen next or what will happen next—and in fact, we realize that nothing actually happens next, because there is only Now.
And the fear of death or social collapse or what we think of as evil or misfortune, that all vanishes completely when our attention leaves the thought-story and returns to the simplicity of here-now, just as it is. The death of a person, or of the whole human species and many other species, or the inevitable death of the sun itself one day and of our whole solar system is not a tragedy when seen from the perspective of the whole (Here-Now). Yes, we may feel grief and sadness and even rage as much of this unfolds, we may be screaming in pain or trembling in terror—again, that’s all part of the dance. But humans are not some aberration apart from nature—we are an expression of nature, and in one sense, everything we do—from our super-highways, to our industrial civilization, to our nuclear weapons—is an activity of wild nature, an activity of the whole universe, as natural as beaver dams, bee stings, predators ripping apart their prey and volcanos erupting. It’s all a movement of one, undivided, seamless whole. No wave can ever go off in a direction other than the one in which the ocean is moving. And ultimately, this happening is not definable or understandable. It simply IS. To call it good or bad, fortunate or unfortunate is in some way extra.
And yet at the same time, our capacity for discernment and our impulse to relieve suffering, to stop injustice, to heal what is broken is also a movement of the whole. We can’t leave anything out. And it’s clear that much of our human behavior comes from our delusion, our ignorance, our false sense of separation, our mistaking of map for territory. When we are fully and simply present here-now, seeing clearly, there is naturally love and compassion and acceptance of how it is. And that acceptance doesn’t mean passivity—it means that whatever action (or non-action) arises from that comes from wholeness and not from the illusion of partiality and separation. But even that illusion and the actions that spring from it are also what is. It’s ALL one seamless whole. Thought divides it into good and bad, favorable and unfavorable, enlightenment and delusion, wholeness and fragmentation—and that discernment is part of the total functioning—but ultimately, it’s ALL included. Nothing can be pulled apart from anything else.
However we try to abstract, formulate, conceptualize, pin down or grasp this living reality, whether with religion or science, it will always slip through our fingers. Awakening is the end of the world as we know it, or more accurately, as we imagine or conceptualize it. It is a process of letting go or seeing through, a process of relaxing into the bare actuality of this moment, a process of dying to the known, a stripping process in which nothing remains except what cannot be stripped away.
I call that which remains the simplicity and vibrant aliveness of what is—this undeniable awaring presence and this undeniable present experiencing, just as it is—and in our actual direct experiencing, awareness and content are an undivided, infinitely subtle, unfathomable happening. And this vibrant happening even includes conceptualizing, abstracting, mapping, and apparently being lost from time to time in the thought-sense of being a separate person who is growing old and living at a time when humanity is probably coming to an end. It’s all a kind of dream. If humanity comes to an end, something (that is not a thing) remains. This intelligence-energy that is here-now doesn’t die. This no-thing-ness that is showing up as everything has no beginning and no ending. As Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote, “in you is the presence that will be, when all the stars are dead.”
And now, on a spring evening, the frogs are croaking madly, the warm air is filled with the fragrances of blossoms, the almost-full moon hangs over the mountains, and I sit at my desk, typing these words, not knowing why life moves me to do this, nor what results such sharing might seemingly have. I’m like the frogs, singing my song, dancing my dance, being the only possible waving of “the great ocean of being” that I can be in this moment. And while I don’t know what the next instant will bring, I have a deep certainty that even if the whole universe blows up, all is well. That doesn’t mean the pain or the grief or the sorrow won’t hurt. But even that hurting is a vibrant expression of the whole, a passing wave of sensations and energy in a vast openness that is limitless, imperishable and utterly free. When the movie ends, the screen has not been burned by the fire in the movie. When we disappear completely every night into the nothingness of deep sleep, or at the moment of death, or when the apparent world ends, that disappearance and that no-thing-ness is nothing to fear. It is the very Heart in which we have been held all along.
Maybe the best gift we can offer at this time is the total acceptance or unconditional love that is the very nature of awareness and presence—being this moment, just as it is—being fully awake to this living reality here-now and not getting bamboozled by our capacity to imagine every possible future, or to endlessly re-run our memories of the past, or to fall into despair and bitterness or rage over what we think is happening—and when we do sometimes get bamboozled in these ways, to see these habit-patterns as part of what is, to not take them personally, and to simply wake up anew. Maybe our challenge is to see only God everywhere, to find the beauty even in the darkness.
Joan Tollifson is an author and teacher with an affinity for Buddhism and Advaita but belongs to no particular tradition. She lives in southern Oregon, holds meetings on nonduality and living in presence, and is the author of several books, including Bare Bones Meditation: Waking Up from the Story of My Life, and Nothing to Grasp, and is currently at work on a book that explores aging and dying (and being awake here-now). This article was posted on her website, www.joantollifson.com.