The Awakened Life – Joan Tollifson
For this Guest Blogger post we have a selection by Joan Tollifson. Our dedicated readers | subscribers will know that Joan contributed a very popular article for our site called: Is India More Nondual Than Chicago? Joan is consistently posting great content on her main website and more recently a Facebook page. We highly recommend that you check out both of those sites (see links below).
An excerpted version of one of her new writings appeared just a few days ago in her 2013 holiday newsletter. We really liked the simplicity and directness and decided to share it in its entirety with you. We’re confident that many of you can relate to some—if not all, of the “life as it is” scenarios or descriptions below.
Enjoy the piece and Happy Holidays! ~MK
My last FB post ended with an invitation to simply be: “To hear the traffic, the wind, the silence of the falling snow. To see the beautiful bird on the branch and the bright yellow car in the street…To simply be alive, right here, right now.” I can hear someone reading this and then saying, okay, that sounds nice, but when I try to do that, my mind just races around like crazy and pretty soon I compulsively grab my phone and start checking for messages…and what about people in war zones, or what about when I’m in horrible pain or my kids are screaming in the supermarket or I’m suffering from severe depression…what then?
When we feel that fundamental sense of unease, restlessness, boredom, overwhelm, unhappiness or dissatisfaction that drives so much of our human behavior, is it possible to pause before turning on our phone, biting our fingers, lighting a cigarette, pouring another glass of wine, eating too much cake, mindlessly turning on the TV, desperately grabbing for a comforting spiritual book, or whatever our favorite compulsion happens to be? Is it possible to pause, even for just one minute, and fully meet these unpleasant and unwanted sensations with an open heart—to give this disturbance the same kind of nonjudgmental and loving attention that we would give to whoever or whatever we hold most dear? Instead of turning away, can we turn towards this unpleasant inner disturbance and open to it completely? What exactly is it?
That question invites a non-conceptual meditative inquiry rooted in curiosity and love, a way of being with something that is entirely different from analytically thinking about the situation and coming up with labels, stories and explanations. Instead, can we pause the thought-machine and drop down into the body, feeling this disturbing and uncomfortable mix of sensations and feelings non-verbally, without commentary, exploring it all with the light of awareness, and also hearing the accompanying thoughts and stories without believing in the veracity of the messages they deliver, seeing these thoughts as impersonal, conditioned outpourings, allowing the whole disturbance to unfold and reveal itself? Instead of pushing the unpleasant or frightening sensations away, can we open to them and perhaps go right into the very core of them with awareness? Can we give up the search for escape or improvement—not forever, but in this moment? Can we be still in the midst of the storm, fully awake to however it actually is Here / Now?
Sometimes we can’t do all that. Sometimes the force of habit and the urge to escape is too strong, and we find ourselves momentarily lost in the plotline an old movie, caught up in stories of failure, lack, unworthiness, shame, depression, anxiety, or perhaps numbing out or behaving in compulsive and sometimes destructive ways. For awhile, this behavior continues and this unhappy or fearful movie plays, and we are a captive audience, entranced by the drama, lost in the emotional upheaval or numbed out in some dissociated daze, hypnotically following the dictates of our conditioning. But eventually, every movie comes to an end. We wake up again to a bigger context. Is it possible at that moment of waking up to begin anew, to start fresh, without instantly getting lost in a new movie of guilt and regret over having been engulfed in the previous movie?
Again, sometimes it isn’t possible. Sometimes we do get caught up all over again. And again. And again. But the great miracle is that no matter how lost we have been, or for how long, or how many times, there is always the possibility of waking up and starting freshly right now.
And in a bigger sense, we are never really lost. So when the weather seems stormy or cloudy or hazy, and we fall into old and destructive patterns, is it possible to simply be aware of them as they unfold, to notice as best we can how they begin, how they seduce us, what they promise or give us, what stories they tell us, how they feel in the body-mind, how they affect those around us? And not doing all this in the spirit of judgmental self-criticism and berating ourselves, but in the spirit of recognizing that this too is how life is. This is part of the human situation, an aspect of how life moves. So can we give it space? Can we see it clearly? Can we not take it personally? The spiritual life isn’t about perfection or achieving some imaginary ideal or always feeling calm and peaceful. It’s about being awake to life as it actually is, not as we think is should or could be “if only.”
And the same approach applies to difficult situations such as our child having a temper tantrum at the supermarket, or even to horrific events such as wars, famines, genocides, rapes, murders, school shootings, child abuse, and so on. Can we meet the difficulties and the pain and the atrocities that occur in human life, however horrible they may be, with an open heart? Can we see the suffering of everyone involved including those who seem to be the perpetrators? Can we feel the immense sorrow that may arise in response to suffering without falling into cynicism, embitterment, despair or hopelessness, and without being swept up in rage, self-pity or destructive tendencies? Can we meet physical and emotional pain with curiosity, interest and love? Can we wake up from the thoughts and stories about it and give our attention to the bare actuality of it?
Sometimes we can’t do all that. And when we can’t, can we forgive ourselves for being imperfect? Can we see that our reactions are impersonal, conditioned weather events, as unavoidable at times and as much an expression of nature as a tornado or an earthquake? Can we recognize that the stormy weather is as integral to this happening as the calm weather, that there are no one-sided coins in existence and no pearls without the grit, that in some way, all the dissonance is in perfect harmony from a larger perspective? Can we allow the weather of this moment to be as it is, knowing that it is ever-changing, letting go of how it was a moment ago (or for the last thirty years), and starting anew Here / Now?
This is the challenge of a life dedicated to being awake. It is not always an easy challenge. Life presents us with everything from the “bourgeois suffering” of running out of half-and-half for our morning coffee to the profound suffering of having our only child gunned down in front of us. We never know what the next moment may be like.
I’m definitely no stranger to the dark places in life. I know depression, restlessness, despair, addiction and compulsion very well. For me, the awakened life is not about never having a bad day or never getting lost in delusion or compulsive behavior ever again, because as far as I can see, that’s a fantasy. For me, a life dedicated to being awake is about waking up now—not once-and-for-all, not perfectly forever-after, not yesterday or tomorrow or someday—but now. Being this moment, just as it is—discomfort, restlessness, unease and all. And sometimes that means being willing to be lost in confusion, or caught up in finger biting, or overwhelmed by despair. It is the willingness to be imperfect, the willingness to be this moment, just as it is, not as I would like it to be.
Waking up is not about having the right philosophy or holding on to some comforting idea that “Everything is perfect” or that “It’s all one,” or that “All there is, is Consciousness.” What really liberates us is coming back again and again to the realm of sensing and perceiving and awaring, rather than getting lost in thoughts and concepts—and seeing directly through the mirage of solidity, permanence, limitation and separation, seeing through the self-image that is at the center of our concern over whether “I” am enlightened or not, seeing delusion as delusion when it shows up, seeing through our ideas about perfection and imperfection. We can’t find the truth, we can only see through what is false. What remains is truth, but it’s best not to call it anything. It’s not far away; in fact, it’s right here, right now. We may be ignoring it, but we can’t ever truly avoid or escape from it. It simply requires a shift of attention, a relaxing of our ideological grip, a letting go, an opening of the heartmind, a dissolving or melting, not moving away.
What liberates us is to stop running on the mental treadmill chasing after the imaginary carrot or fleeing from the imaginary tiger, and instead simply being alive, right here, right now—waking up from the trance of self-concern. Discovering the listening silence at the heart of this moment, the vast space in which there is room for everything to be as it is. And from this, intelligent action follows.
And when we can’t seem to stop running on the treadmill, then maybe just see how it feels to chase the carrot or to flee the tiger. Can we give this habitual, conditioned activity our full attention, without fighting against it? Is it possible to simply be this moment of running on the treadmill, without judging it, without trying to correct it, without viewing it as a personal failure? Awareness is the great transformer. Awareness is another word for unconditional love, total acceptance.
This isn’t a mental process, which is why I value meditation so highly, although we don’t have to call it meditation and it doesn’t have to happen in any formal or traditional way. What I mean is making time and space to be still, to be silent, to listen openly, to drop out of the thinking mind and into the body and the senses and the naked experiencing of this moment. When we do that, we may discover directly that there is no body—that there is only this vast field of boundless emptiness: the red fire truck streaking past, the cry of a bird, smoke rising from a chimney, tingling sensations of cold on the face, the warmth of a fire, the dancing flames, a child’s voice—this vast ocean of no-thing-ness that is vibrant and rich and alive.