What is life all about? Does it mean anything? Where are we looking for happiness or liberation? Do we have free will? What is enlightenment and how can I get it? Can anything be done to free ourselves from depression, anxiety, compulsive behavior, wars, holocausts, prejudices? What is spiritual (and what isn’t)? What happens when we die?
The thinking mind wants to find answers to questions. When you’re trying to find out which bus to take or how to build a house, this ability to find answers is a useful function. But the thinking mind doesn’t know when to stop thinking or when thinking is useful and when it isn’t. And so, as we grow up, we live more and more in a conceptual world trying to think our way to happiness. We lose touch with the immediacy and wonder we had as children.
When I was a little girl, my mother used to give me a pail of water and a paintbrush so that I could paint on the sidewalk. I’d paint these paintings on the sidewalk with water, and they would disappear in a matter of minutes, but that didn’t matter because what I was enjoying was the sheer joy of doing it. It needed no reward, no praise, no permanence. It was complete in itself.
And then at another point in my life, I was an art student, and I can remember seriously questioning whether it was worth painting at all if I weren’t Leonardo or Picasso, if I were less than perfect. That sense of playfulness and curiosity that children have so naturally, enjoying the simplicity of being, gets overshadowed by this attempt to make something out of me, to make “me” into a successful me.
Very often when we come to spirituality, even when it’s supposedly all about waking up from this story of me, it morphs into it’s own new version of this same story, focused now on how successfully I’m waking up, how well I’m meditating, whether I’m enlightened or not. Oddly enough, this me that we’re so concerned about may be nothing more than a kind of mirage or mental image, the central character in a movie story generated by thought and imagination, nothing real at all.
How can we find out? Is it possible to wake up from this mental mirage, this entrancement in thought? What is it that would wake up? Is it “me”? Or is it something else?
Again, the thinking mind looks immediately for answers. We seek out authorities and adopt their views. We cling to ideas and explanations, and seek bigger and better experiences.
Liberation is not about having the answers or having an experience. It has nothing to do with belief, but is rather the absence (or transparency, or seeing through) of belief. Waking up does not happen in the past or the future, only Now. Liberation or enlightenment is not something you find or acquire like a new car. It is not some dazzling or exotic experience like being permanently high on ecstasy or LSD. Liberation is seeing through the ubiquitous fabrications and mirages of conceptual thought, including the whole idea of liberation and the one who supposedly needs to be liberated.
Ultimate Reality is hidden right in front of our eyes in plain view. It is showing up as breakfast dishes, laundry, sunlight on leaves, the barking of a dog, sound of traffic or rain, the humming of the computer, the taste of tea, the shapes of these words, and the awareness being and beholding it all. And only when we describe all of this in words does it seem as if “awareness” is one thing and “the taste of tea” is something else. The non-conceptual actuality of this breathing-hearing-seeing-being is undivided, without center or periphery. No inside, no outside. No subject, no object. Simply this, just as it is.
And then perhaps a thought: “There must be more to life than this,” or “What is the meaning of it all?” or “What about final enlightenment?” or “Isn’t this all just the phenomenal manifestation, and isn’t that an illusion?” Thought creates imaginary problems and tries to solve them. The complex human brain has an astonishing ability to conceptualize, imagine, remember, project, and think about things that have no actual reality. Yet even these thoughts are nothing but a momentary dream-like shape or expression of the One, undivided, boundless Whole.
Thought labels, categorizes, evaluates, and reifines the ever-changing perceptions that appear. Conceptual thought creates the hypnotic, mirage-like illusion of solid, persisting, independent things (including “me” and “you”) — the illusion of duality and separation. Thought imagines “me” as a separate character on a journey through time. It conjures up goals and stories of success and failure. It even creates the image of “me” as a serious spiritual person dedicated to getting rid of the “me.” But without thinking, where is the “me”? What am I, really?
Is it possible that the peace and well-being we seek (that longing at the root of all our more superficial desires), cannot be found or satisfied by answers or attainments or experiences of any kind? Is it possible that the very search for it “out there” is precisely what prevents us from noticing that what we are seeking is the very essence of Here and Now?
And what is that?
It is nothing you can take hold of conceptually, and it’s not any particular experience (as opposed to any other experience). It is the being-ness, the groundless-ness, the IS-ness of this moment — this that is undeniably present beyond all doubt, requiring no proof or belief, impossible to deny — before and after and even during all the grasping and searching and experience-seeking. The words (being-ness, groundless-ness, IS-ness) are only pointers. What they point to is nothing you can get hold of as an object. In fact, there really are no solid objects because everything is thorough-going flux. This no-thing-ness (or emptiness) is all there really is.
And this no-thing-ness is vibrantly alive, aware, conscious, awake, present. The grasping, searching and thinking may seem to destroy the wholeness of being or the spaciousness of presence-awareness, but can anything really destroy awareness, or the present moment, or being-ness? Doesn’t everything appear Here and Now, in awareness? And doesn’t everything appear altogether at once as one diverse but seamless whole?
Conceptual thought (apparently) divides it up. The division and separation are never really there, of course. They exist only in thought and imagination, but if that thought isn’t seen through, if it is believed and taken seriously, then the result is suffering. Zen and Advaita are all about waking up from this entrancement and suffering. But it isn’t “you” who wakes up and then becomes “an awakened person.” That is delusion. The very notion that there is someone who needs to wake up from delusion is part of the delusion! The problem of bondage only exists in the thought-created movie world of imagination. The whole problem is a kind of mirage. What’s real is never absent, and what seems to obscure it is never real.
No words can ever capture the actuality of this one eternal present moment. It can be talked about and pointed to in various different ways, but anything we say about actuality is never actuality itself. We may nod in agreement upon hearing that; nevertheless, we habitually tend to mistake the map for the territory, the concept for the actual. We then get into endless debates and confusion over imaginary dilemmas such as whether there is or isn’t free will, or whether any kind of spiritual practice is worth doing or not, or whether the world is real and deserving of our attention or only a dream-like illusion that is best ignored. This mind-spinning goes in circles leading nowhere. Reality can’t ever be captured in concepts (like free will or no free will, self or no self, this or that). Whatever you say is never quite right. No word or concept is ever complete enough. If you say that you can’t learn to ride a bicycle because there’s no you to do it, or no free will, you’ll be foolishly dis-empowering yourself. And yet, if you look carefully at who or what is riding the bicycle or “choosing” to do so, you won’t find anything or anybody, nor can you really explain how exactly “you” do this bicycle riding.
We can argue endlessly over who rides, and whether or not they can freely choose to do it, or whether instruction and training is necessary or only a hindrance, and we can discuss the mechanics of bicycles and bicycle riding, or tell stories about legendary riders of the past, but finally, no amount of description or prescription will tell you how to ride a bicycle or how it is to be riding one. Talking about it, reading about it, watching others do it, or debating about who does it best, is not the same as simply doing it. Of course, enlightenment isn’t quite the same as riding a bicycle, because enlightenment isn’t an activity, but rather the realization of what has never been absent and the recognition that there is no way in or out of the groundless-ness of what is. This is all there is, and you are this. But as in bicycle riding, it’s the actuality that matters, the territory itself and not the map. Discussing enlightenment (or awakening, or liberation), thinking about it, imagining it, or seeking it as a future event are all map-events. But enlightenment is the territory itself, although paradoxically, even the map is the territory, for the One Reality is inescapable and unavoidable. It is absolutely simple and immediate and impossible to lose.
Right now, simply listen to the sounds that are occurring. Traffic sounds, honking horn, bird cheeping, lawn mower, snow blower, rain falling, wind, rustling leaves, dog barking, vacuum cleaner, childrens’ voices, boom box, siren, train whistle, whatever it is. Listen to the sounds as pure sound, in the same way you might listen to music. If there is no sound at all where you are, listen to the silence. Feel the breathing, the sensations of the body, the heart beating, the rushes of energy, the tightness in the chest, whatever is felt. Feel all of this as pure sensation, without labels or judgments, without resistance, without trying to correct or improve or enhance it in any way. See all the colors and shapes and movements around you in the same way you might enjoy an abstract painting. Notice that everything is constantly changing, and yet, it all happens Here and Now. Here is always here. It’s always Now. This “Now” can’t be pinned down, nor can it be avoided. It’s always right here, seamlessly present. Here and Now is obvious, unavoidable and undeniable.
What is Here and Now?
Notice what happens when this question is asked. Does the thinking mind instantly kick in looking for the answer? Does thought begin searching the spiritual (or scientific, or psychological) files? “This is all Consciousness,” we might think. Or, “This is pure awareness,” or “This is brain activity,” or “This is my living room,” or “This is text on a web site,” or “This is Intelligence Energy vibrating into different patterns,” or “This is a dream,” or “This is the phenomenal manifestation and I am pure neumonom.”
Can it be seen right now that these are all thoughts? They are concepts, ideas, explanations, words, labels, beliefs. They may have their usefulness, and they may be relatively more or less accurate as pointers or maps, but notice right now that they are all words. They are not the actuality (the such-ness) of ever-changing sounds, sensations, shapes and colors. They are descriptions or labels (as are all the words I just used). The word “awareness” is not awareness. Any idea of awareness or presence can be doubted or argued. But the actuality of awareness or presence is beyond doubt or belief. It needs no proof. The word “awareness” seems to make “awareness” into a separate thing. But the actuality isn’t really separate from everything else, is it? The Present Moment isn’t really divided up into “awareness” and “content.” It is one seamless Whole.
Can all words, labels, concepts, ideas, and beliefs be allowed to fall away (not forever and ever, but right now)? If they are let go, then what remains?
Is the thinking mind looking for something (an experience, a particular sensation, the right conceptual understanding, the absence of something, or whatever it might be)? Can that seeking activity be seen through and allowed to drop away? Can there be a simple resting in what actually remains — this that is utterly inconceivable and yet totally obvious and impossible to avoid? Seeing, hearing, awaking, breathing — simply this. Not the words, but the actuality. (And if the mind is now trying to banish words and thoughts in order to achieve some imagined non-conceptual purity, can that effort also be seen for what it is? Nothing needs to be banished, not even this effort! It’s all one indivisible flowing whole — this ever-changing appearance that always happens in this omnipresent Here and Now).
Every moment is utterly new. Don’t cling to the words. They’re never quite right. Language is inherently dualistic. It requires subjects and objects, it reifines and divides, but in actuality, where are the boundary lines? Where does “inside” turn into “outside”? You can think of a conceptual answer, but looking directly with awareness, can you actually find such a place? Can you see that this boundary is purely conceptual, that it’s not actually found in direct experience? Don’t take this on belief, but right now, if you close your eyes and pay careful attention, can you actually find the place where “inside” ends and “outside” begins? How solid is what you think of as “your body”? Is the apparent border between “you” and “everything else” really there in your actual experience, or is it actually nothing more than an idea, a mental image, a river of ever-changing sensations, a story appearing in awareness? Can you find any limit to present awareness?
What is being pointed to is not something you can formulate and take hold of and possess. Zen, Advaita, Dzogchen, Taoism, meditative inquiry, the power of now, presence-awareness, radical non-duality — many names have been given to this aliveness. The danger in names is that they so easily solidify, codify, and deaden into dogma. Next thing we know, we have priests, scriptures, lineages, doctrines, holy wars, blogs – right ways and wrong ways. You may consider yourself a free-thinking, anti-authoritarian type, but this tendency toward dogmatism, fundamentalism, and authoritarianism can take subtler and subtler forms. It’s easier to see it “out there” than it is to see it in oneself. Faced with uncertainty and insecurity, we want answers and reassurance. It’s easy to slide into believing something, and then into identifying with those beliefs, and then into defending them to the death (literally or metaphorically). Belief is always shadowed by doubt. Let go of everything that can be doubted, and see what remains. What is beyond doubt takes no effort to maintain.
The ability to think in highly complex and abstract ways is both our greatest gift and our greatest source of suffering. Reactions and behaviors that make perfect sense in the wild often become useless or destructive when they get carried over into the psychological realm. We react to an insulting remark in the same way we react to an attacking tiger, or we search for enlightenment “out there” in the same way we search for food and shelter, and we end up with anxiety, depression, insomnia, and global warfare. We could say that waking up is about seeing through illusion, discerning the difference between what is real and what is imagination. Awakening doesn’t mean never thinking again or throwing out all the conceptual maps, but it does mean being able to see (in the present moment) the difference between the map and the territory, and this seeing gets ever more subtle and refined.
Thinking is not the enemy. In practical matters, thinking makes sense. It’s a wonderful tool. But much, maybe most, of our thinking has nothing to do with practical matters. Instead, it’s a kind of habitual spinning of our wheels, chasing mental phantoms, battling with ghosts, obsessing over dreams. This kind of thinking never really works or satisfies us in the way we want it to. If you pay careful attention to it, you’ll begin to notice how painful it is, and yet also how compelling. It’s very much like an addiction. In fact, we could say that this kind of thinking is our root addiction. You may also notice that all of these obsessive thoughts center around the fictional “me” in some way or other: evaluating “me,” judging “me,” trying to make “me” happy or safe or powerful or enlightened. Waking up is not about bringing the story of me to a satisfying conclusion. It’s about seeing through the story. It’s about recognizing that the story appears and disappears within you, within awareness. The story is ephemeral, insubstantial, intermittent, fleeting. Awakening doesn’t mean you forget your name or your life history, or that you lose all sense of being a particular individual. It simply means recognizing that all of that is a momentary appearance in awareness, a kind of play.
In some spiritual circles, there is considerable preoccupation with having a big bang awakening, imagined to be some line in the sand that “you” cross, after which the mirage of encapsulation is forever, irrevocably ended, and after which “you” are a liberated sage at last! Among so-called seekers, there is often great fascination with teachers, sages, and gurus who have supposedly crossed that mythical line. Everyone wants to hear their story. And above all, we want to know how this same wonderful thing can happen to me! Is it possible to see that this is the same old story about me? There may be people (but only ever in the dream-like movie of waking life) who have had all kinds of amazing experiences, but enlightenment is the end of the one who cares about being enlightened or unenlightened. It is the realization that there is not, and there has never been a separate person to get enlightened. And however many times the mirage of encapsulation appears, it is always only a mirage. And it isn’t “me” who wakes up from this mirage because “me” is the mirage! In fact, it isn’t “me” who does anything.
As “you” are reading these words right now, little markings appearing on this page in various combinations are being seen and instantly translated into meaning. Is there someone doing this remarkable activity, overseeing all these elaborate optical and neurological processes, or is it all happening automatically, on its own? We say, “I” am reading, “I” am seeing, “I” am hearing, “I” am thinking, “I” stopped smoking, “I” overate. But what exactly is that “I”? Do “you” really know (or control) what “your” next thought or “your” next action will be?
Right here, there is the ability to put attention on your left foot and wiggle your toes. But how does all that actually happen and what initiates it? Where do will and intention come from? Once the mind tries to capture this happening in words, it instantly creates the mirage of duality. Suddenly we are apparently lost in imaginary problems and conundrums: Do I have free will? If so, why do I do things I don’t want to do? How can I change? What should I do? Can I do anything? Do I exist?
This is all thought. Whenever there is confusion and seeking, it’s a clue that thought is busy chasing its own tail. Actuality is simple. The present moment is simple. Here, there is no confusion, no problem, no free will, no absence of free will. You are simply doing whatever you are doing. And actually, there is no “you” doing any of it. That “you” is an after-thought, a mental image, a grammatical convention, a reunification of some energetic flow that is truly no-thing at all. In actuality, life is simply living itself through the appearance of “you” and “me.” Truly seeing this eliminates all guilt and blame.
Given the “wrong” combination of genetics, neuro-chemistry, conditioning, provocation, and opportunity, what we consider horrible things can happen. “I” could be the perpetrator of such things, or “you” could. And while we would certainly want a serial killer or a child molester locked up for the protection of everyone; at the same time, if we look deeply, we can see that they are blameless. No one would commit atrocities if they really had a choice, if they were really free. Looking closely, it can be seen that if “I” were in “their” shoes (that is to say, if “I” had the same combination of genetics, neuro-chemistry, conditioning, provocation, and opportunity), then “I” would do exactly the same thing “they” did, because there is no “I” and no “them” apart from the “shoes” (the ten million conditions — nature and nurture).
Does that mean that we should be totally passive or inert or maybe wildly licentious because, “It’s all just happening,” and “We have no choice”? No. It means that the “me” who could apparently choose to be this way or that way is a phantom, a mental image with no substance. Does that mean we are powerless, that nothing can be done?
Rather than slap down a conceptual answer (yes or no), is it possible to live with the question, to not know? Watch carefully as actions occur, as choices are made and decisions are reached – from the little ones like whether to get up from the chair, to the big ones like whether to get married or move across country – watch carefully. See if you can find the one in control, or if you can catch the decisive moment, or if you can explain how it all happens. You may find that you can’t find anyone at the helm or say how it is that “you” do the simplest things, like raising your arm or reading these words. On the other hand, you can’t really say that you can’t do things either, since there is clearly an ability right here to act. You simply can’t get hold (conceptually) of exactly what that is or how it works. And the more awareness is brought to any particular activity, the more refined the activity and the awareness seem to become, and the more possibilities open up. But who brings awareness to an activity? Is there a choice involved? You may find that words and concepts simply can’t contain the actuality.
Here, in non-conceptual actuality, is the natural response-ability and intelligence, the choiceless choice or effortless effort exerted by life itself: breathing, circulating blood, thinking, awareness of thinking, dreaming, waking up, appearing, disappearing — one indivisible wholeness in which there is nothing separate to have or not have free will, to cause or be caused, to be born or to die, to be enlightened or unenlightened.
Thought seemingly divides this wholeness up. It imposes a grid on top of the emptiness and conceptually sorts it into little squares. Then it imagines that Square A causes Square B, or that Square B is the result of Square A, or that Square A has free will to choose between Square B and Square C, or that Square A comes before Square B in time and space. This is all imagination, a way of conceptualizing. The squares aren’t really separate; the boundaries don’t actually exist; they’re only conceptual, as are the imagined relationships between the squares, including time and space. The squares are actually not related at all because they’re not two. And this thinking process that imposes conceptual grids on wholeness is itself an aspect of the same wholeness, as is the awareness that sees through the imaginary grids. Everything is included in the Absolute. We could say that the Absolute includes the relative (the world of apparent grids), but isn’t bound by it. Awakening doesn’t mean ignoring, discounting or denying relative reality, but awakening sees through it. It recognizes the emptiness of everything. But in relative reality, the show goes on, and you (as an apparent character) play your part, apparently making choices and taking actions.
What we often think of or call choices are simply thoughts that arise unbidden that may or may not be followed by the result they appear to select. A thought such as “I am going to quit smoking” arises on its own out of the ten million conditions and may or may not be followed by the cessation of smoking because that thought has no power. The “I” to which it refers is a powerless mirage, an illusion. A mirage cannot choose to do (or not do) anything. To the mind, this idea of having no choice and no free will sounds scary, as if “I” might then be a robot with no control. But this apparent dilemma vanishes into thin air with the realization that there is no “I” here in the first place to be either bound or free.
And actually, thought and conditioned existence are quite robotic and mechanical, but there is something prior to thought and conditioned existence that is free and unbound. The energy and aliveness is in that boundlessness. “You” as the character in the story of your life are an imagination, a phantom, an ever-changing appearance. You (in Truth) are the emptiness that is being and beholding it all, the no-thing-ness, the boundlessness that is appearing as everything, including you (the character) and the story of your life. Whatever appears will disappear. Whatever comes can go again, and whatever goes, can always come back. But boundlessness is ever-present. That is all there is. There can be the idea of “your mind” and “your body” and “your free will” or your “lack of free will.” But look closely and see if any of this is really here.
Zoom in close enough or back far enough, or turn attention to the source of seeing or to awareness itself, and you find nothing that you can grasp, and yet, you find everything! You know that you (as presence-awareness) are here, and you know this with absolute doubtless certainty. Being here is beyond doubt.
No word can contain or describe what has been called the Unborn, the Absolute, the Tao, Pure Awareness, Oneness, Buddha-Nature, the Self, Truth, Totality, the One Mind — the words are only pointers. They point beyond conceptualization, to what is utterly obvious and omnipresent. They point to Here and Now, the One Eternal Present Moment.
And what is that?
Any attempt to grasp it ends in frustration. And yet, it’s unavoidably right here. It is not something mystical and transcendental that you have to work very hard to see. It is this direct experiencing right now. It is seemingly obscured by the very effort to pin it down, grasp it mentally, conceptualize it. In that grasping and the ensuing frustration, we feel confused and separate. Waking up is simply relaxing that mental grasping. In the words of one Zen teacher, waking up is opening the hand of thought.
Buddha-Nature (or the Self) is actually omnipresent—it never really leaves us, even in the midst of grasping and seeking, for even the grasping and seeking is an activity of the same indivisible boundlessness. Boundlessness is the ever-present reality in spite of whatever form it appears to take, never because of any form it apparently takes. But whenever attention becomes absorbed in thoughts (mental movies, worries, obsessions), then it seems that boundlessness has been lost. It seems that “I” am a separate somebody struggling to regain “Oneness” or “awareness” or “the present moment,” as if that were some object apart from me that I need to find, grasp, understand, experience, merge with, identify with, or become. The mental mirage-world fills the screen and the story seems utterly real, all-pervasive and convincing. And paradoxically, every attempt to resist suffering only seems to confirm the imaginary problem and make the suffering worse. Ultimately, there is no way out except to see that there is no need of a way out.
See how transparent it all is. These thoughts and the movies they unfold on the screen of awareness are simply secretions of the brain, conditioned habit patterns, mental weather — there is nothing personal about them. There is no need to resist or vanquish them; simply see them for what they are.
Seeing the mirage-world of thoughts and mental movies for what it is gets ever more subtle. Being down on yourself for “thinking too much” is just more thinking! There is no “you” doing the thinking or the seeing; that “you” is only another thought, another mental image. Liberation isn’t about getting rid of anything; it’s about seeing that there is nothing separate from anything else. The “me” who wants to stop thinking is just another mental image, another thought, another movie character in another story.
Reality is unavoidable. It is right here in the smell of rain, the song of a bird, the whoosh of traffic, sensations — the nondual absolute. Totally alive. Un-graspable. No final result, no finish line, no Big Bang event, no you — just what is, as it is. No need for exotic experiences. Nothing to be eliminated or held on to, and nothing to be acquired or understood. Nothing excluded. Nothing singled out. Freedom is utterly simple and uncomplicated.
Although everything is seamless and without division, entrancement in the story of separation is a different experience from open, spacious, unclouded awareness. In the extremes of entrancement, people torture and exterminate millions of other people because it seems like a good idea. Naturally, we want to wake up from such entrancement on both the personal and global levels. But there’s a very subtle catch here.
Resisting suffering or trying to wake up is itself part of the suffering, part of the confusion. It doesn’t work because it is rooted in the illusion of separation, the same illusion and confusion that generates the suffering. Suffering can only end here and now with the total acceptance of what is. It is the very nature of Now (awareness, emptiness, beingness) to include and accept everything. Everything is allowed to be, obviously, because it’s here! Everything is as it is, and could not be otherwise.
Taking action (or non-action) to relieve pain, heal injury, or correct injustice arises naturally. The universe acts. Ultimately, what is healed will be broken down again. All form is impermanent; it never even exists in the way we think it does. True freedom is recognizing the emptiness (or boundlessness) that is unborn and undying, the emptiness that is here regardless of relative circumstances and never because of relative circumstances.
If the movie begins playing in which “you” are trying to “get” this recognition, and feeling badly when it appears that “you” have failed, then simply notice that this is yet another movie, another dream-like appearance in consciousness, another story about the imaginary character. Emptiness is already here. It can’t be lost (or found). Awareness includes everything and sticks to nothing. Clouds appear. Contraction appears. Pain appears. Resistance and tension appear. Expansion and relaxation appear. Mental movies appear and disappear. Dreams come and go. Everything disappears in deep sleep and death and reappears again in waking life. It’s all a boundless ebb and flow that includes absolutely everything, even contraction and distraction and resistance and the appearance of separation and encapsulation — even so-called “evil.” It all is.
But that doesn’t mean losing the ability to differentiate between clarity and confusion, nor does it mean not flossing your teeth or not working to correct injustice if you are moved to do so. Wholeness includes discernment and the ability to act. It includes the ability to notice errors and correct them. So awakening doesn’t mean we have to sit back and do nothing about problems because we have the idea that everything is “okay” as it is. As my first Zen teacher told me: “You’re perfect just as you are, and that doesn’t mean there’s no room for improvement.” There’s room for everything! But the true source of any action is the Totality, not the imaginary separate person. And whatever happens is a dream-like appearance. The last moment has already totally vanished into thin air! How real was it?
There is no distance at all between samsara and nirvana. The illusion of distance is samsara, and nirvana is simply the realization that this distance, or separation, is imaginary. Liberation is not about “you” getting from samsara to nirvana. That is illusion. Liberation is the absence of that whole story of separation and lack.
But as a belief, all this is meaningless. Liberation isn’t about picking up a new belief system or a new set of answers (for example, that, “All is One,” or “There is nothing to attain,” or, “Consciousness is all there is,” or, “There is no free will,” or, “Everything is perfect.”). Liberation is the aliveness and immediacy beyond belief. Liberation is when all the answers, explanations and positions disappear, and what remains is the open mind of not knowing.
Thus it has been said, if you meet the Buddha, kill it. If you find the answer, drop it. Yesterday’s answer is today’s dead meat. Let it go. There is no enlightened person. There is only enlightened seeing, enlightened being, enlightened consciousness — impersonal clarity. There is no unenlightened person either — only confusion and entrancement, impersonal obscuration. All of this is like weather — it comes and goes — and all of it is an aspect of the undivided whole, inseparable from every other aspect: the confusion, the clarity, the desire to wake up, the impulse to clarify and heal, the various forms of meditative inquiry and exploration, the practices, the waking up from practices — all of it is what is.
If you try to make sense of all this and adopt some fixed position or view, sooner or later, the ground you imagine yourself standing on will be swept away. Liberation is not a matter of pinning down the “right” answer or the “correct” position. Reality cannot be pinned down or put into a box. Does waking up take effort or is it effortless? Is there a choice or is it choiceless? Is the world real or unreal? Does what happens matter or not matter? Will I still be here after death or not? Such questions defy answers because they are all rooted in trying to describe the indescribable, and/or they are rooted in conceptual fallacies, like flat-earth questions (What will happen to me if I fall off the edge of the earth? You and the edge are both imaginary; the question is based on a misconception).
As soon as we have words like “Oneness” or “Emptiness” or “Awareness,” the word instantly creates the mirage-sense of an object. But that object isn’t real, it is conceptual, and it isn’t what these words are pointing to. Boundlessness is inconceivable, and yet it is visible everywhere, as everything.
Boundlessness, Oneness, or Non-duality does not mean that a bunch of separate pieces are now joined together. It doesn’t mean that everything is made of one primal substance. It means that everything is equally insubstantial, that there are no separate “things” to be joined, that there is no substance to get hold of anywhere. And yet, that doesn’t mean there is nothing. Emptiness does not mean void-ness or formless nothingness. There is an old Zen story where a Master asks a student to grab emptiness. The student makes a gesture of grabbing a handful of empty space. The Master says, “That’s nice, but there’s an even better way to grab emptiness.” He takes hold of the student’s nose and twists it. Everything is emptiness! The sensations of nose twisting are emptiness. Your nose is emptiness. And emptiness is nothing other than your nose. Emptiness means everything (including your nose) is empty of solidity and permanence and separation. Form and emptiness cannot be teased apart except in thought. Truth is not something mysterious you need to search for. It is just this — the computer screen, the shapes of these words, the roar of traffic, the gurgling stomach, the barking dog, your nose — just this. No-thing at all!
Ultimately, the universe is a fleeting dream, a bubble in a stream. Wipe your forehead and you’ve killed and maimed billions of micro-organisms. Horrible events and misfortunes are often the source of tremendous wisdom, insight, compassion, and awakening. Light and dark are two sides of the same coin, and there are no one-sided coins. Seeing this, there is more acceptance of life as it is. Enlightenment is not about “you” getting to the sunny side of the street and staying there permanently. Enlightenment includes the whole picture. Groundless-ness is everything, and everything is groundless-ness. Enlightenment doesn’t mean dissociation or lack of caring, for it is the realization that everything is myself. The dividing lines are all imaginary. Enlightenment is unconditional love. Each drop of dew, each snowflake, each piece of trash in the gutter, each human being is unique and precious, and it’s all one seamless being, marvelously diverse but utterly without separation. When we really see that, naturally, there is compassion for all beings including ourselves. Sometimes the greatest compassion does not look like what we usually think of as compassion.
Whatever appears — whether it is confusion, resistance, pain, pleasure, effortlessness, bliss, boredom, me-stories, clear skies or thunderstorms — all of it is allowed to be Here, even judgments and preferences! It all is Here! There is space Here for everything.
If you’re beginning to think that “awareness” is actually something (a Blank Screen, an Empty Container, or a Mirror), notice that these are all mental images, conceptual ideas, subtle imaginary objects. “Awareness” is a word that points to what remains when everything perceivable and conceivable falls away. Are you trying to see what that is? Can you see the joke in trying to do that?
Don’t think that everything perceivable and conceivable has to disappear. But how solid is anything perceivable or conceivable (any image, any idea, any memory, any sensation, any thought, any emotion, any event, any object, any experience)? Where is your childhood or yesterday or a minute ago or the last second? On close inspection, everything is insubstantial, ungraspable, vanishing. The mind keeps trying to get a grip. It wants answers, certainty, a place to stand. What is this Whole Thing? The mind wants to understand. Thought imagines that “you” can step back and take a look at yourself, at Totality. But no matter how hard it tries, the eye cannot see itself. You already are what you are seeking. You always have been. There is no possibility of separation. You can’t not be what you are.
Experiences come and go. This is not about having a special experience, a big event, a final breakthrough, or a psychedelic vision of some kind. It is not about regaining any previous experience or achieving something you’ve read about or imagined. All of that is in the world of dream-like appearances.
Simply notice that everything (mental movies, dreams, perceptions, thoughts, waking life, mirages, the I-illusion, apparent duality, time and space, chairs, tables, expansion, contraction, meditation retreats, traffic jams, everything) is without substance or continuity, and it all appears and disappears right here. Here is always here. It’s always Now. Even memories of the past, fantasies about the future, and thoughts of elsewhere can only appear Here and Now. Awareness is always here, whether it appears clear or “clouded” by thoughts. In deep sleep, the entire universe disappears.
All words and ideas disappear. Even the sense of awareness or presence disappears. The whole quest for understanding and awakening disappears. You (as anything perceivable or conceivable) disappear. There is no “you” left to notice that “you” have disappeared! Nothing perceivable or conceivable remains. Out of this vast emptiness, dreams arise, and then the movie of waking life. Wave after wave crashes on the shore, and the ocean remains, waving. People-ing is something that Being is doing, in the same way that the ocean is waving. There are no waves apart from the ocean, and no people apart from being. What is born and what dies? Boundlessness cannot be captured by the mind. Something is happening here, but it can’t be grasped by thought. And it doesn’t need to be grasped or explained! You can’t find the Totality because you are the Totality. There is nothing other than the Totality. You contain the whole universe and the whole universe is showing up as you.
Awakening is never about achieving something that isn’t right here, right now.
Ordinary present awareness. The shape of these words, the hum of the computer, the sound of the traffic, the listening presence, the sensations that appear and disappear. Only thought divides it up and tries to figure it all out. And that very movement of thought is itself only energy and vibration, another appearance, mental weather. No-thing at all.
So what to do? Effort or no effort, practice or no practice? The question is like a cloud floating across the sky. Practices may appear or disappear, efforts may happen or cease happening. Either way, there is only this one present moment, just as it is. So-called meditation (in the truest sense) is not about going anywhere or achieving anything. It has nothing to do with special postures, techniques, results or experiences. It is simply effortless awareness, awake to what is. It is the direct discovery that there is no mediator and no possibility of stepping in or out of the boundlessness of Here and Now. When that is seen, the whole concept of “meditation” falls away. What remains is not a new belief system, but rather, everything, just as it is.
So, if you’re feeling confused, trying to figure out whether or not you have free will, or whether or not you exist, or whether or not you should meditate or do nothing, or whether to believe this teacher or that teacher, simply wake up right now from these mental conundrums. Stop. Look. Listen. Hear the traffic, the birds, the wind. Feel the breathing. Nothing special. Simply the extraordinary miracle of what actually is.
All that (apparently) stands in the way is the story that this isn’t it, that something more or less or different is needed. You can’t make that story disappear because that very effort is part of the story, as is the “you” who longs to be free of the story. The stories and the illusion of encapsulation can only be seen for what they are, as they arise, here and now. If they are not seen through, then it may appear that “you” are lost or bound or in trouble. But is there really a “you” who is lost? Is the screen ever burned by the fire in the movie?
Words and concepts are complicated; reality is utterly simple. You can’t eat the menu or live in the map, and these words are an invitation to see through all beliefs and ideas, even the very subtle ones from Advaita or Zen or this text. Truth is not in the future, but Now. Not hidden, but obvious and unavoidable. Not in concepts, but in actuality. When all that mental clutter of seeking and trying to figure everything out and trying to get somewhere is seen to be nothing at all (and nothing personal), when it is clear that you are beyond all appearances, and that all appearances are nothing but you, the One Mind, then there is no one left to awaken. This can be called liberation, but why call it anything?
Joan Tollifson writes and talks about what remains when everything that can be doubted drops away. She points beyond belief to the simplicity of what is. Joan has an affinity with Advaita, Zen, and radical nonduality, but she belongs to no tradition or lineage. She has lived in northern California, northwestern New York, Chicago, and she now lives in southern Oregon. Joan is the author of two books: Awake in the Heartland: The Ecstasy of What Is (2003) and Bare-Bones Meditation: Waking Up from the Story of My Life (1996). She is currently at work (or play) on two new books.