Sometimes in the world of spirituality, people get the mistaken idea that thinking is bad, memory is bad, visualizing or planning the future is bad, imagination is bad, story-telling is bad, fantasy is bad, sensuality is bad, caring about the world is bad, money is bad, watching TV is bad, and so on. People get the idea that being awake or meditating or getting enlightened is about being in some continuous state of thoughtless awareness in which imagination has been banished and all sense of being a person has vanished. But this isn’t what I’m pointing to at all.
Yes, it is very important to see how thought can confuse us, to develop the ability to discern the difference between concepts and actuality, to be aware of how we do our suffering—how we reincarnate the mirage-like separate self through thinking and telling the story of me and my problems, and how it feels if we spend most of our time lost in memories or fantasies or regrets. It’s very helpful to be able to see when a story is enlightening us—as in a good movie or a poem or a teaching story—and when a story is just a form of suffering—as in when we’re lost in stories such as “I’m a failure” or “You ruined my life.” It’s helpful to discern when watching or reading the News is part of our responsibility as members of the human community to stay informed and when it becomes a way of scaring ourselves, solidifying our opinions, passing along destructive mental viruses, and stirring up anger and despair. It’s important to see when imagination and visualization and fantasy are creative, entertaining or enjoyable and when these are a way of generating more and more suffering.
We break reality up conceptually into apparently different “things” in order to see different aspects of reality more clearly—and in that way, we distinguish between thought, awareness, consciousness, sensation, perception, conceptualization, imagination, fantasy, and so on. It is helpful to make those distinctions. But in reality, the dividing lines are notional and none of these “things” actually exist as separate “things.” For example, if you look very closely at thoughts as they are happening, they seem ever-more ungraspable. They are bursts of energy with no clear boundary-line between that energy and the storylines and mental images they evoke and the awaring presence beholding it all. It is truly one whole undivided happening. So it’s fine to use the labels and the maps that thought draws, but it’s also important to be aware of how we get bamboozled by them. And when I say it’s important to be aware of that, I don’t mean having that as a new idea or a new belief, that “we easily get bamboozled by our thoughts and concepts,” but rather, I mean SEEING it as it happens, waking up on the spot.
We may spend time in meditation simply being present in silent stillness—not looking at our devices, not reading or writing or talking or watching TV or listening to music or doing tasks, and to whatever degree possible, not thinking or daydreaming, but simply being fully present and awake to the bare sensations and energies of this moment. And that’s a great thing to do, in my opinion. It’s good for the body and the mind, and it’s very helpful in noticing how it actually is Here / Now—cultivating the ability to see and disengage from the conceptual spin where humans often live most of our lives and waking up to the spacious, open, awaring presence that we truly are. Meditation is great. But obviously, we won’t spend our whole life sitting in silence.
And in everyday life, things naturally get messier. Lots of things happen at once. Phones ring, children cry, dogs bark, milk is spilled, tires go flat, deadlines press in on us, decisions are called for, words fly around in our heads and out loud. Memory colors perception, thinking and awaring and sensing all happen simultaneously. We might enjoy a good conversation that includes a mix of deep inquiry, open listening, gossip, story-telling, humor, while maybe simultaneously eating a meal and also hearing the birds singing and the traffic sounds and enjoying the beauty of the flowers in a vase on the table, and intermittently dealing with shrieking children who run in and out of the room. We may watch a movie, read a novel, go to a play, read our children a bedtime story, or watch the News—and for awhile we are transported into another world. And none of this needs to be pathologized or avoided. None of this is an obstacle.
Yes, it may be helpful to set aside time for meditation, or to go on a silent retreat, or to attend a satsang, or to take breaks from watching the News. But if we think that retreats are spiritual and watching TV is not, we are lost in dualistic ideas. Yes, it’s helpful to notice how things affect us—how we feel after watching TV, or after meditating, or after eating a certain food, or after having a few drinks, or after spending time with a certain friend. Being aware of how things affect us—noticing what things bring suffering in their wake and what things bring forth well-being—that is intelligent and helpful. But dividing it all up into good and bad, spiritual or not spiritual, and then trying to improve or perfect or fix “me”—that is not helpful.
Spirituality tends toward various form of imbalance: fundamentalism, dogmatism, puritanism, authoritarianism—and religion, which is fundamentally about realizing wholeness and love, has been used to justify all manner of wars, purges, crusades and acts of unbelievable cruelty, repression or abuse—and while it may be easy to spot many of these tendencies in the world’s dominant organized religions, these tendencies can happen in nonduality as well. They may take a subtler form in nonduality, but they can still happen. So it’s always good to stop and see where we have latched onto a conceptual formulation as if it were truth itself, where we are being dogmatic about our way of formulating things, where we have reified the ungraspable no-thing-ness, turning it into “something” that we can hold onto, where we have closed down the openness and intimacy of not knowing with the false certainty of belief and ideology, where we are caught up in a conceptual confusion over different maps.
We don’t really need to figure out how the universe works or what role the brain plays in consciousness or which comes first—the chicken or the egg, or what exactly happens or doesn’t happen after death, or whether there is or isn’t ever any kind of choice. We can think and reason and knot up our minds trying to logically figure such things out. But true nonduality doesn’t mistake any map for the territory, and it doesn’t land on one side of a conceptual divide or fixate on one position as opposed to another. Nonduality isn’t about getting the right beliefs, but rather, it is about waking up from belief and simply being awake Here / Now without holding to any ideas about what this is. Truth is in the open mind and the open heart, not in formulas or dogmas. Everything we say is always only a tentative approximation.
Beyond all such conceptual arguments, we can experience directly the living reality—the vibrant energy, the brightness of present experiencing, the spacious openness of presence-awareness, the ever-changing and ever-present Here / Now. We can discover the freedom of not being caught up in false ideas. We can feel the sense of well-being that comes from the recognition of wholeness and fluidity and no-thing-ness. We can experience the liberation of being awake to the simplicity of what is. We can see that everything is a happening of the seamless whole, that all of it is impersonal, that none of it means anything about the mirage-like “me.” We can recognize that life includes both pain and pleasure, joy and sorrow, and in that recognition, the search for a life of perpetual bliss can fall away along with our desperate quest to permanently rid ourselves of all uncertainty, confusion, upset, old habits, neurosis and pain—that search for a non-existent one-sided coin can finally end, and there can be a peace with how it actually is, knowing that it is always changing and that all of it is simply impersonal weather. We may also discover that in this very instant, there is a possibility of not going with the conditioned movement of habit and not resisting it either, but instead, simply being aware without doing anything at all. Being awareness. We can discover the transformative and healing power of awareness and unconditional love. And that’s what really matters. That’s where the rubber meets the road, as they say.
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.