Joan Tollifson is my newly invited guest on ‘The Dawn Within’. Joan writes and talks about being awake to the aliveness and inconceivability of Here-Now — being just this moment, exactly as it is. She has explored Buddhism, Advaita and radical nonduality. Joan’s main teacher was Toni Packer, a former Zen teacher who left that tradition behind to work in a simpler and more open way. Joan does not identify with or represent any particular tradition. You will find ample information on her website: Joan Tollifson, the simplicity of what is. She currently resides in southern Oregon.
I like Joan’s down to earth, bare-bones approach to reality, which is refreshing and does not need complex practices. I like too her frank and direct relationship to the ’what is’ of life, including the most human, most confused expressions of ourselves. I have chosen to share here one of her texts called ‘The Inconceivable Actuality Here-Now’. It is an extensive, and rather complete description of the descent into the ‘here and now’ of present experience, beyond all maps and conceptualisations. There is immediate and incredible potency in just being present to what is taking place right now — what is taking its place within the awareness that we are. “The rain pattering on the roof — is it inside me or outside me? Is it separate from me? Is there a boundary between these sounds and the listening presence that is hearing them? What happens when full and open attention is given to something?” Joan keeps inviting you to see and understand for yourself the nature of reality. I hope you enjoy…
“Nature is not imaginary: it is actual;
and what is happening to you now is actual.
From the actual you must begin—
with what is happening now—
and the now is timeless.”
~ J. Krishnamurti
The Inconceivable Actuality Here-Now
I had a high school film teacher back in the 1960s who, in the first class, had us look at our thumbs. After about 10 minutes, he asked how many of us were bored. He told us that if we were really seeing, we wouldn’t get bored. He gave us homework assignments that involved sitting in front of trees and looking at small sections of bark for an hour, or watching grass blow in the wind. One night I was lying on the floor in our dining room in the dark, watching shadows move on the wall. My mother came in, a bit upset, and asked me if I had finished my homework. I told her I was doing it. And I was! What a blessing to have a teacher like this in school.
As I told someone recently in a FB comment, the ‘ordinary’ is actually extraordinary, and what we think is ‘the same old thing’ is never actually the same from one instant to the next. The more closely we attend to anything that shows up (whether it is a visual appearance, a sound, a somatic sensation, a taste, a smell, a tactile sensation), the more it unfolds into ever more subtle dimensions with no end to that unfolding.
By simply looking and listening openly, we can notice and enjoy the fluidity and playful nature of reality — the clouds moving through a puddle of rainwater on the sidewalk, the gorgeous hills and valleys in a crumpled Kleenex, the way light dances on the wall, a tingling in our feet. We can notice it is all one seamless, infinitely varied but undivided happening, and that all our words for it and explanations of it can never capture or nail it down. We also begin to notice the common factor in every different experience: the presence of it, the immediacy of it, how everything is the immovable, infinite and eternal, ever-present Here-Now that never departs from itself.
The ever-changing appearances are not other than this immovable presence. Like the tumbling patterns in a kaleidoscope, the appearances are the ever-changing shapes, textures, patterns and flavors that Here-Now (presence-awareness) is momentarily taking, the infinite dimensions of reality. No boundary can be found between awareness and content, seer and seen, subject and object. These are all words for an indivisible and inconceivable happening always right here, right now. We might say that the ever-changing appearances express, reveal and celebrate this ever-present unicity — but again, those are just words.
And calling it unicity or awareness or presence or God or the universe or any name at all runs the risk of reifying or objectifying the groundlessness of what is in a way that isn’t really true. Because whatever-this-is, is not an object. It has no opposite, no other. It is timeless and spaceless. Time and space are appearances within it. Here-Now (this awaring presence, this present experiencing) has no size, no shape, no color, no location, no form, no beginning or ending, no place where it is not. It is showing up as every color and shape, and as what remains even in deep sleep, when even the first impersonal sense of being here now (aware and present) has vanished. It is subtler than anything perceivable or conceivable, subtler even than the subtlest experience, the first knowingness of being, and yet it is magically displaying itself as this whole universe in all its wondrous diversity.
The more closely we attend to any apparent object, the more it dissolves into ungraspable no-thing-ness, and yet this no-thing-ness is not nothing in some nihilistic sense. It is vibrantly alive and endlessly (presently) revealing itself.
Belief is always about maps, ideas, concepts, formulations. Actuality is not in that realm. Actuality is just this, right here, right now, before any interpretation, label, or formulation. It is ungraspable, impossible to pin down or capture in any formulation. It is YOU! Not the bodymind, the self-image, the story — but rather, that to which the word ‘I’ most deeply refers — which (if we look) turns out to be no-thing in particular, nothing we can grasp, and at the same time, absolutely everything. In other words, this present happening. Actuality is what cannot be doubted, which is not something mysterious or hidden. It is right here — this present experiencing, just as it is. But it’s so easy to confuse how it is (which is no way at all) with what we think it is (which seems solid and formed).
We’ve all heard that the map is not the territory, that you can’t eat the menu or drink the word water. And that all sounds very obvious. But in fact, it gets very subtle. Because our human tendency to mistake map for territory is deeply conditioned, ubiquitous, pervasive, socially reinforced, and often incredibly subtle and completely unnoticed. We automatically assume the reality of the map-world, mistaking it for a solid objective reality that is really ‘out there’, without even noticing that this is happening.
The interpretations of experience are entirely questionable and can always be doubted, but the bare fact of experiencing — the IS-ness of it — is impossible to doubt. You cannot doubt being here now, present and aware, and you cannot doubt that something is showing up (present experiencing). The actuality being pointed to is not in those word-concepts, but what they are pointing to, which cannot be grasped by thought. All interpretations are false approximations.
As they grow up, babies learn how to draw lines around certain parts of amorphous masses of shape and color and put things into abstract categories, and thus they learn how to ‘see’ tables and chairs. The tables and chairs are doubtful — they are interpretations — but the amorphous masses of shape and color are not. Likewise, we may, at a quick glance, mistake a cell phone for a gun, a man for a woman, or a mountain lion for a large dog. In other words, the interpretation may be faulty. But the immediacy of JUST SEEING (or just being) is impossible to doubt — the shape itself and the seeing of it (not two) are beyond doubt — the interpretations are all doubtful, even the so-called ‘correct’ ones.
You can doubt the label ‘seeing’, which is also an interpretation, but the bare fact of seeing cannot be doubted. You can doubt being a person, or being on a planet called Earth, or being a certain âge — all of that had to be learned. But you cannot doubt the fact of present experiencing — not those words, but the actuality itself. It’s a subtle point, but it’s a world of difference between actuality and interpretation. And, of course, mapping, interpreting and story-telling are all aspects of this actuality as well, things that unicity is doing, and in that sense, the map (as a map) is as real as the chair, but the map is not what it claims to model or re-present, and ‘the chair’ is an idea (a category) abstracted out of a seamless actuality, as is ‘the map’.
Concepts and thoughts tend to create (in the imagination) an apparently solid, substantial world full of separate and persisting things, including ‘me’, a seemingly independent and vulnerable entity struggling to survive in a world ‘outside myself’, along with notions of past and future, here and there, us and them, this and that. Attending to direct experiencing reveals something quite different. Direct experiencing reveals the fluid, undivided, seamless, boundless, indeterminate, unresolvable and alive nature of reality, as well as the way it is always just this — the ever-present and unmoving immediacy of Here-Now.
The words ‘dog barking’ are not the actuality to which they refer. When you put that experience into language, it suggests that ‘you’ are hearing ‘a dog barking’. and that ‘you’ and ‘the sound’ and ‘the dog’ and ‘the barking’ are all separate things. But the actual experiencing is not divided up that way. It’s just woof-woof-woof. Right here, no distance, no gap, no separation, utterly immediate. The hearer, the hearing, and the thing heard are mental concepts. Actuality (woof-woof-woof) is undivided, seamless, immediate. Check it out for yourself.
It takes careful attention to begin to notice the difference between the conceptual and the actual, and it gets ever-more subtle and potentially ever-more radical. Radical because you begin to realize that EVERYTHING is not what we think it is. That can feel a bit dizzying at times, and a bit threatening, because it challenges our whole view of ‘reality’ and everything we hold sacred and dear. After all, we might think, what about everything I care about, everything I identify with, everything I hold dear — my family and friends, my beloved pets, Mother Earth, saving the environment, economic and social justice, animal rights, putting an end to war, saving the whales? And what about ME — my whole life, my journey to spiritual awakening, my struggles along the way, my deficits and addictions, my triumphs, my life purpose, my breakthroughs and setbacks, my memories, my whole life story — is ALL this no more real, no more substantial than a dream? That sounds quite disturbing!
But as a Tibetan Buddhist teacher once said, the point of all these visualization practices that they do in Tibetan Buddhism is to eventually realize that you are visualizing (i.e. imagining, generating, creating) everything! And the ‘you’ who is doing this is not the person you think you are — that person is one of the things being visualized.
In the map world of thought, you seem to be ‘somebody’ who occupies ‘a body’ and makes choices, somebody on a journey through time and space. If we don’t look too closely, this seems unquestionable. But start attending to direct experiencing, and the ‘you’ who supposedly occupies this body cannot be found, the ‘choices’ that get made all come out of nowhere, the past (even a split second ago) has vanished into thin air, and ‘the body’ turns out to be an amorphous, ever-changing mass of somatic sensations, visual images, mental images — with no persisting shape, no solid boundary, no enduring form.
And, in fact, whatever you examine closely dissolves or disintegrates in this same way. What seems solid turns out to be nothing graspable at all. And yes, that does seem to include everything we hold sacred and dear, although when this is realized, our beloved dog doesn’t disappear into thin air, and if (for example) life is expressing us as a person who cares about a particular issue, that caring may still continue — and yet, none of it seems solid or separate or fixed in the way it seemed when attention was focused on thoughts. It is all simply an inexplicable happening doing what it does, and no one stands apart from it to control it.
All of us are susceptible to the seductive pull of the conceptual map-world because it seems much more familiar, much more certain, and much more solid and safe. And it looks so convincingly real — if we don’t look too closely. And of course, it’s a deep animal survival instinct to get a grip, to figure out where we are and what’s going on. On a certain practical level, this is obviously functional and essential, but in the territory of spiritual awakening, it’s in the way, although paradoxically, nothing is ever really in the way. But to discover that, what is needed is not the security and certainty of seemingly being in control and having the answer, which is always an illusion, but rather, relaxing into freefall and unknowing.
So, throughout the day, whenever it invites us, we might simply enjoy the textures of naked experiencing itself — the sounds of rain or traffic, the ever-changing sensations in the body, the wonderous array of shapes and colors, the bare actuality of whatever is showing up, without labeling, interpreting, analyzing or telling a story about it. Just simply BEING it, and noticing how it is all happening by itself, even our thoughts, moods, urges, interests, and actions.
And if we find ourselves feeling anxious, depressed, confused, restless or uneasy, we might experiment — just for fun — with sinking deeply into directly experiencing these things, without the mental spin. What is this thing we are calling ‘anxiety’ or ‘confusion’ if we don’t call it anything? What does it feel like? Where is it in the body? How is it moving? What do we find if we go deeply into the bare sensations themselves with open attention? And what if we shift attention and listen instead to the traffic sounds, or watch the leaves fluttering in the breeze outside the window? We may find that the imaginary problem we thought we had disappears, although it’s best not to expect that or any other result from this exploration. This isn’t a practice, something we ‘should’ do, or something we can do well or fail at, but simply the natural activity of life itself — being curious, open, awake to whatever is presenting itself in the moment.
And if we find ourselves beginning to think that being with sensory experiencing is ‘good’ (or ‘enlightened’), and that being lost in thought, eating a pint of ice cream, or losing our temper is ‘bad’ (or ‘unenlightened’), it can be noticed that this is just another story, another idea. It’s true that much spiritual practice focuses on trying to ‘be here now’, which simply means shifting attention from thinking, conceptualizing and story-telling to the immediacy of sensing and perceiving — from map to territory, in other words, and this ‘being here now’ is indeed a valuable practice, not unlike my high school film class.
But it gets tricky, because we can’t actually ever BE anywhere else other than Here-Now. This is what we ARE. And trying to ‘be here now’ can easily turn into a new way that thought seemingly splits up reality into good and bad, enlightened and unenlightened, and then inserts ‘me’ into this imaginary picture as the one who is suffering from persistent bouts of ‘inattention’ (or, ‘not being here now’), and then desperately trying to do better and yet always falling short.
Lost in this story of success and failure, imagining ourselves as the main character, we think we must find a way to eliminate our various so-called ‘distractions’, ‘addictions’, or ‘defects’. And we try everything imaginable to stop them, thinking that they are standing between us and enlightenment. We fail to notice that ‘me’ and ‘enlightenment’ are both ideas, that the future doesn’t exist, and that what this word enlightenment actually points to is right here.
In spite of our best efforts to perfect ourselves and get rid of our apparent problems, these pesky things tend to recur. But we may begin to notice that trying to stop them (i.e. resisting them) feels tense and controlling. It mentally splits experience into two parts (the controller and the uncontrollable event), which then seem to be two separate things locked in conflict. It’s like being torn apart or trying desperately to lift ourselves up by our own bootstraps. It’s painful and it doesn’t work.
But, blessedly, if we’re lucky, we eventually come to see that nothing is ever actually left out of this undivided and indivisible whole. So-called ‘distraction’ is just another flavor of unicity, another impersonal shape that this awaring presence (Here-Now) is taking. And in spite of the infinite variations in appearance (contracted or expanded, pleasant or unpleasant), it is all fundamentally the same — i.e. empty of substance and full of awaring presence. Nothing is left out of this seamless totality. It’s all included. Everything is it. This realization is incredibly relaxing and freeing — and interesting!
Of course, as I know from my own life, we can see something like this directly and clearly, and we can understand it mentally as well, and we can even write books about it, and still little corners of our actual life seem to get left out, and we keep uncovering or noticing them. It seems we learn certain basic lessons over and over in an unending awakening, perhaps in ever more subtle and ever more radical ways, noticing ever new ways the dualistic mind has split reality into two, and being ever more willing to let go and relax into the naked happening of this moment, releasing the controlling grip of the survival mind that is forever trying to hang on and save ‘me’ from annihilation. Or at least, that’s been my experience. And yet, ‘my experience’ is another story, isn’t it? In actuality, whatever-this-is has never been absent and has never for one instant ever departed from itself.
So when the gripping or the splitting or the resisting or the grasping or the seeking happens, that too is simply another texture of this awaring presence — ALL of it an ever-changing, inconceivable happening that appears and disappears — evaporating from one instant to the next. How real was any of it? It is dream-like, isn’t it? And yet, it’s right here, vividly alive and real! Undivided. Whole. Simple, simple, simple — and yet, infinitely rich and without end. Never absent and never lacking anything, except in the story, where duality plays out its great imaginary dramas of finding and losing — the Divine Lila. What a hoot! And yet we take it so seriously, but that too is all part of the show.
Text by Joan Tollifson
Photos by Corinne Galois
Please visit ‘Outpourings / Glimpses’ where Joan has gathered some of her writings, and articles.
– ‘Death: The End of Self-Improvement’ – by Joan Tollifson – (New Sarum Press)
– ’Nothing to Grasp’ – by Joan Tollifson – (Nonduality Press / New Harbinger, 2012)
– ‘Painting the Sidewalk with Water: Talks and Dialogs about Nonduality’ – by Joan Tollifson – (Nonduality Press / New Harbinger, 2010)
– ‘Awake in the Heartland: The Ecstasy of What Is’ – by Joan Tollifson – (Nonduality Press / New Harbinger, 2003 / 2006)
– ‘Bare-Bones Meditation: Waking Up from the Story of My Life’ – by Joan Tollifson – (Random House/Bell Tower/Three Rivers, 1996)
Corinne Galois is a lover of art and photography living in Paris. She is very eclectic and is an observer of what I would call the small theatres of everyday life, her subjects ranging from abstract details, to the loveliness of nature, or the poetry of street life.
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