Saturday, March 11, 2017

Joan Tollifson - Wholeness of Presence

Who am I? or What am I? – These are classic spiritual questions. The point of these questions is not to repeat them over and over mechanically like some kind of mantra. Nor is it to come up with an answer in the form of a word, a label or a concept. It’s easy to learn the “right words” to answer various spiritual questions, but those answers are not the direct knowing that these questions invite. Nor are these questions meant to induce some kind of fantastic, extraordinary, mystical experience that we must then try to sustain permanently. That is a losing endeavor. Experiences come and go. These questions point to what does not come or go.

These questions invite us to turn attention back toward the source of present experiencing, the source of our next breath and our next heartbeat—to deeply feel into what we mean or refer to when we say the word “I”. Please note—and this is so important—attention is not thinking. Attention doesn’t mean thinking about these questions and trying to figure them out by reasoning, nor does it mean dredging up what we’ve read or heard. And it doesn’t mean looking for some “thing,” some object of perception, that is “out there” (or even “in here”), apart from the looking itself. Attention means feeling into these questions in a very direct, immediate way to discover what “I” refers to at the deepest, closest, most subtle level.

If I don’t refer to thought or memory, what am I in this moment right now?

Without thought or memory, do I have a name, a gender, a race, a nationality, an enneagram type, a bunch of neurotic tendencies, a history, an age, a life story, an occupation, a problem, a social status, a purpose in life? Do I have a boundary, a limit, a place where I begin or end? In my own direct experience, am I a chunk of dead matter (a hunk of meat) or am I pure consciousness? What is my actual experience?

Feeling into these questions, letting our thoughts and stories dissolve, we feel ourselves as boundless awareness, impersonal presence, the vast space of Here / Now in which everything comes and goes. And we can notice that this is not some new acquisition, but simply the noticing or recognizing of what has never not been so, what has always been right here—our True Nature or True Self beyond name or form. We can feel the silence, the stillness, the peace, the unconditional love, the freedom, the vibrant aliveness that is the natural state of being, the groundless ground of Here / Now.

(And if we’re not feeling this, if we’re telling ourselves the story that “I don’t get it” or that “I’m not experiencing it,” can we notice that this is a story? However true it SEEMS to be, it is a story. It is a story told from the point of view of the apparently separate self, identifying as the person. Can that be seen? Can it be seen how this story and the desperate attempt to “get it” or to have a certain experience is actually what is preventing us from simply noticing the ever-present awareness in which this whole drama is unfolding? Can we notice that awareness is beholding the seeking and the dissatisfaction, allowing it all to be as it is, and that this whole drama has no actual substance? It is made up of disappearing thoughts, sensations and stories, isn’t it?)

Of course, being at the office under pressure, or at home with children who are screaming and throwing a tantrum, or simply out and about at the supermarket or on the bus or at the airport—this won’t feel exactly the same as sitting quietly and sensing deeply into boundless awareness on a silent meditation retreat or at a satsang. Experience is always changing, and if we try to hold on to any particular experience, that is suffering.

But if we stop and check at any busy or seemingly disturbing moment, we can notice that we’re still Here, that it’s still Now, and that everything—all the turbulence, all the sound and fury, the whole drama of emotion-thought—is happening in this vast space of awareness that we are. And all of it is made out of consciousness. We can discover that there is no separation or essential difference between awareness and content, between form and emptiness, between the sound of the jet engines or the cheeping bird or the screaming children and the awaring presence that I am.

And yes, for most of us (myself certainly included), there will be times when the storyline feels believable, when the smog of emotion-thought (what Eckhart Tolle calls the pain-body) is strong, when the hypnotic trance of separation is momentarily over-powering and feels like reality, when we identify as the little me (the character in the story, the person we take ourselves to be), when we feel hurt or put down or abandoned or not seen, when we lash out or get defensive or hide in our room or fall into some kind of addictive behavior. This happens to human beings (or really, to consciousness, which gets easily absorbed in its own creations). And it happens more to some of us than to others simply because the weather conditions are different in different bodymind organisms. Maybe for some lucky ones, this kind of entrancement falls away completely. But for most of us, it happens sometimes.

So, if and when this happens, is it possible not to add on any additional storylines taking it personally as “my” fall from grace or giving it meaning (e.g., “I’m a hopeless case,” “This proves how different I am from Ramana and what a loser I am,” etc.)? Is it possible to simply allow the stormy weather to be as it is, to see it clearly for what it is, to feel it as energy and sensation in the body, to see the thoughts and stories running in the mind—to really SEE how we do our suffering? The more clearly this is seen, the less power and believability it has, and the more ability there is to be free of it, to choose to let it go—not by will-power and effort, which doesn’t work, but in the same natural way that we can relax a tight muscle. And the more we bring our attention back and abide in presence-awareness itself, the easier it is to access this shift from encapsulation to boundless, from separation to wholeness, from thought to awareness—and the clearer it becomes that awareness is the ever-present common factor in every different experience.

Waking up is always Now. And at the same time, there is a kind of journey over time in which the false sense of separation and encapsulation and identity as “me” gets thinner and thinner and the knowingness of myself as boundless awareness or pure presence gets stronger and more stable. But it’s so crucial to see that this journey is not about “me.” It isn’t “me” who wakes up. The story of “me” going back and forth, alternately getting it and then losing it, is just that—a story, a mental-movie made out of consciousness, appearing in awareness. And the apparent evolutionary journey that happens over time only has a relative reality. It requires thought, memory and imagination to conjure up the story of this journey. And that story easily reinforces the sense that I am the little “me” at the center of the story, making progress or failing to do so. Time is itself a mental construct. In reality, it is always Now. And there is no such thing as “after Now.” There is only Now. And even when the movie playing on the screen of awareness is the most disturbing one imaginable, the screen itself is never damaged. The movie-story has a relative reality, but it vanishes in an instant. Whatever happened an hour ago is completely gone. A memory trace may remain—Now—but the happening itself is totally gone. And ALL of it happens in awareness.

So rather than comparing ourselves to others, or evaluating our progress (or apparent lack of it), or telling the story of being an enlightened one or an unenlightened one, is it possible to simply BE Here / Now as no one at all, to dissolve into the formless presence that knows and cares nothing about success or failure? This is peace. This is unconditional love. This is true freedom. And from here, as life itself, we can move in the apparent world, doing whatever life moves us to do, enjoying the whole show, even the parts we don’t enjoy, seeing the beauty even in the apparent darkness, knowing that in the deepest sense, all is well. Here / Now, no problems remain. Yes, there may still be pain or cancer or bankruptcy or ignorant people in power, and yes, relatively speaking, we can still take steps to heal an illness, to fix a flat tire, to recover from an addiction, to change the educational system or the economic system or the political system, to address injustices, and so on—but we do all this from a place of knowing that everything is unfolding perfectly and that all is well even when it seems otherwise.

And we come home, again and again, always Now, to rest and abide and marinate and dissolve in the wholeness of presence. This in itself is perhaps the greatest healing and the greatest gift we can offer the world, for we are not separate from the world.


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