Here is what you are!

Amigo in conversation with Joan Tollifson, writer of ‘Awake in the Heartland: The Ecstasy of What Is’ and ‘Bare-Bones Meditation: Waking up from the Story of my life’. She teaches English part-time at a Chicago college and also holds meetings about what is.
In her books she candidly and wittily shares memories about her seeking with the reader.

In that same manner she answers our questions and disproves the relevance of any ‘why’, ‘if’, or ‘but’-scenario by relentlessly pointing simply straight to the only reality there is: the everydayness of ‘What is’.

K: After reading your book 'Awake in the Heartland', I recognized, as many will do, the longing and seeking for a breakthrough experience. Visiting, talking and writing to all kinds of teachers (Gangaji, Tony Parsons, Isaac Shapiro, Wayne Liquorman, Toni Packer, Steven Harrison), trying to discover the need of such an experience.
So what was the breakthrough in the end? And of what significance was the longing and seeking?

J: The so-called breakthrough is the dissolution of the seeker - which is not an event that happens to the seeker (since there isn't one!), but simply the clear seeing (by no one) that there never has been anyone doing the seeking (or anything else), that there is nothing at all to attain, that there is only this. The Oneness (or Peace or Happiness) that has been sought is actually inescapable and omnipresent.

Many people (in the movie of spiritual life) are waiting for an event - some explosive moment after which everything will be entirely different. But no event or experience is real. The whole phenomenal display is an appearance with no solidity or substance.

What IS cannot be 'achieved' or 'realized' or 'practiced' or 'embodied' or anything else. There's nothing apart from it to realize or achieve it, and there is nothing that does not perfectly embody it. Every experience is equally sacred, equally true. Reality is what is, just as it is.

The whole search is a dream-play. It has no significance at all. It's a momentary appearance, like the clouds, the trees, the shows on television, the beautiful sunset, the dried leaves blowing down the street...

K: So it’s discovering: ‘Nobody here, nobody there’ (as Tony Parsons likes to put it). And so no-body to blame, to accuse, to love, to make up to, to worship, to hold responsible, to be. Just get on with life and live it as it is?
I often picture this as a revolving door; longing and wanting gets you in and at the end you find yourself outside again at exactly the same spot as you left. So what’s the difference?
Is that the reason one feels disappointed, deceived, disillusioned and gets addicted to the ‘revolving door’ and wants to keep seeking?

J: There is no one to 'get on with life and live it as it is,' and no one to go in, out or around a revolving door. All of this is an appearance, a story.

And it's not that 'you' come back to the same spot. The journey and the one taking it are imaginary. Here is always here. It's always Now. Appearances come and go, stories take shape and dissolve, movies play, but Here does not come and go.

Here is God. Here is the Beloved. Here is What Is. Here is Pure Awareness. Here is Unconditional Love. Here is what you are.

Disappointment and disillusionment are beautiful. They are an invitation (to nobody) to give up completely, to abandon all hope, to let every belief go, to let the ship sink. What remains?

What remains is Here. You. This.

If the mind is right now trying to see 'Here' (as an object) or figure out what 'This' is and grasp it, there will be frustration. The mind can't grasp what is all-inclusive and uncontained.

Every thing (even the grasping and the seeking and the frustration) is allowed to be exactly as it is -- not by 'you' finally 'doing acceptance' correctly, but by this Here and Now that is omnipresent and inescapable. Here accepts everything. It is the very heart of everything. It is all there is. Any sense of separation or split is only an appearance. And that appearance is also here. It, too, is what Is.

What Is (Here) cannot be found because it can't be lost. It can't be seen because it is the seeing itself. It is invisible, yet it shines through everywhere--in every work of art and in every scrap of garbage, in the most seemingly enlightened activity and in the most seemingly neurotic activity. When this is seen, there is no impulse to search elsewhere, for there is no elsewhere.

The words are just words -- playful sounds bubbling up out of nowhere. Like everything else, they appear Here for an instant, and then they are gone. Here remains.

All the things you think are wrong with you are absolutely right.

K: Let me bring up another combination of letters on screen and ‘toy’ with it: ‘authenticity’ (according to the dictionary: The quality or condition of being authentic, trustworthy, or genuine.).
If there’s investigation of looking for the source going on, it seems as if it is inevitable to meet ‘the black hole’: (that which goes beyond words or comprehension) meeting the beauty of inability or incompetence, and seeing and being ‘the source’ expressing itself through all the stories that seem to be going on.

At the same time this word seems to point the assumed personality towards being genuine and authentic. Living the expression of Here as it is, without any assumed personality, past or future to measure it against or need to permit it; being: loving, upset, blissful, angry as it occurs.
But one is confused when something occurs that is not expected. As in: I am really getting into spirituality (meditating, vegetarian food, doing exercises, not giving in to desire, celibacy, not smoking, nail biting etc.) but I still get upset, annoyed, angry and I start to suppress those matters, instead of expressing them.

Another angle: in some way or another ‘genuineness ’ seems to touch and strike us. We make ‘heroes’ and ‘heroines’ (e.g. Mandela, Gandhi, JFK, Mother Theresa and so on) out of them. These people seem to be expressing themselves without restraint and we look up to them.

J: What IS is authentic. Any effort to 'be authentic' is rooted in the assumption that it is possible to be something else. Is it?

There are many teachers who speak of living in a spiritually correct way or 'embodying enlightenment,' as if this was something that someone could do (or fail to do).

The truth is that there is simply what is, as it is. It could not be otherwise. None of it is personal. It is one whole undivided inseparable tapestry. The dividing lines are only in the mind, not in Reality. There is no separate one to be (or not be) authentic. Telling a so-called lie is as 'authentic' as telling the so-called truth. Eating meat is as 'authentic' as eating vegetables. Getting angry or biting your nails is as 'authentic' as meditating or doing loving-kindness practices.

What is truly authentic (undeniably true and genuine) is THIS that cannot be contained in any word, THIS that includes absolutely everything and sticks to absolutely nothing, THIS that has been pointed to by words such as 'Here, Now, Presence, Emptiness, Pure Awareness, Seeing, Being, the Self, What Is.' THIS is undeniable. Inescapable. This isn't a belief. It's the one thing you are absolutely sure of, right now, without any doubt. You know you are here. You don't need a mirror or an outside authority or a course of study to know this. Seeing is happening, hearing is happening, all on its own. This IS. It's undeniable.

Any ideas (or ideals) about 'enlightened people' living 'enlightened lives' are simply ideas having to do with a fictional character in a movie. All such ideas are a form of 'restraint' and 'suppression' (to pick up on your words), but even that restraint and suppression is also genuinely what is, and it belongs to no one. It is an impersonal appearance, like the weather. Some days are sunny and clear, some days are windy and wild, some days are stormy and dark. It means nothing. It simply IS. We love to idealize people, especially dead people, especially dead gurus. We love to imagine they were flawless, perfect, vegetarian characters.

One of my main teachers, Nisargadatta Maharaj, smoked cigarettes and died of throat cancer. He sold cigarettes for a living. He ate meat. He lived in (or near) a red-light district in Bombay. He got angry, yelled at people, threw them out of his satsang. I never knew him in person, but this is what I hear. I think that's part of what drew me to him. It was instantly clear that awakening did not mean a person had to resemble Ramana Maharshi or Thich Nhat Hanh. You did not have to be soft-spoken, beatific, gentle and vegetarian.

Another person who has been very important to me is Tony Parsons. He joked once that the people who were coming to him were giving up vegetarianism, putting on weight, and dying of heart failure. He thought that was just fine. He said, 'You can't not be in grace. Everything about you is totally absolutely perfectly appropriate. All the things you think are wrong with you are absolutely right.' That was enormously liberating to hear. I realized how caught up I had been for such a long time in trying to perfect the character, trying to have some Big Bang awakening experience, trying to get rid of all Joan's neurotic little habits, trying to turn into somebody better, trying to make something (other than this) happen.

I realized this whole quest for self-perfection (and personal enlightenment) was a movie, a dream. The movie was absolutely perfect, just the way it was. It was a great movie! But it was a movie. Nothing about Joan needed to change. No Big Bang was needed. It was a revelation to see that Joan's whole effort to wake up from the movie was nothing more than another part of the movie. The awakening that was so desperately being sought had in fact never been absent. But this awakening was not an experience to be had (for any experience would just be another scene in another movie), and it did not happen to Joan, for how can a mirage wake up from a mirage?

When I write and talk about this spiritual stuff, I seem to have an overwhelming compulsion to reveal the neurotic quirks and idiosyncrasies of the Joan character. Some people say I'm very courageous and honest and genuine. But actually, it's just what happens. I can't control it. I'm not trying to be that way. In fact, for a long time, I was trying not to do that--I had the idea that I wanted to speak and write only the 'Pure Truth,' and I thought this meant leaving the whole story of Joan and her messy, neurotic life behind, and just speaking and writing about Pure Awareness (whatever that might be!). What was seen eventually was that the Pure Truth is All There Is. It even includes the appearance of Joan with all her (apparent and absolutely perfect) flaws. Nothing needs to be attained or left out. The mess of everyday life is actually the perfect expression of truth.

What is authentic right now? That's a great question. There's only one possible answer: What is, just as it is.

Here is true love

K: As I read your book, I noticed that at on the one hand you were drawn by the devotional (bhakti) teachings and on the other hand by the intellectual (jnani) approaches. What was the role of the heart and the mind to the story of Joan’s evaporation?

J: Great question. For one thing, I wouldn't characterize the so-called jnani approach as intellectual. The kind of exploration and inquiry that attracted me was more about open awareness and curiosity, pure sensory experiencing of what is (sensations, sounds, sights), seeing stories as stories and thoughts as thoughts. I spent a lot of time exploring things like how a so-called 'decision' or 'choice' actually happens--not by thinking it through analytically, but by watching it in action. Was there somebody at the controls? Was there a choice? Was there a 'me'? It wasn't about reasoning it through; it was about looking to see. I suppose this had an intellectual dimension as well, but it was primarily about direct investigation. And it was also about simply resting in pure presence, the sounds and sensations of this moment minus the mental overlay. My main teacher at that time was Toni Packer.

At some point, I stumbled upon Advaita (Nisargadatta and Jean Klein were my first introduction to that), and something new began to open up, something I would now call non-dual understanding, which is simply the recognition that there is absolutely nothing to attain, that Consciousness is All there Is.

Before I stumbled upon Advaita, I had the sense that I was engaged in a very important evolutionary undertaking, struggling to stabilize in a state of open awareness and get beyond the caught-up-ness in self-centered stories and neurotic habit patterns. It seemed that 'I' went back and forth between these two realms. The world itself seemed very real, and it seemed that this process of becoming more and more aware and present was crucial not only to solving my own personal problems, but also to solving the larger global conflicts. I imagined myself engaged in what Toni Packer calls 'the work of this moment': watching, exploring, paying attention. The feeling-tone was quite serious and sober.

Advaita, on the other hand, didn't seem to take the world seriously. It didn't seem to take me seriously! It didn't seem to take the whole evolutionary paradigm seriously! It didn't seem as concerned about watching and paying attention. I found myself more and more in spiritual scenes where people laughed uproariously and gazed into each other's eyes and talked about love and devotion. Eventually I came upon Wayne Liquorman and then Tony Parsons, both of whom are uncompromisingly non-dual and also delightfully irreverent and 'unspiritual.' The whole sober, serious, paying attention, 'being present,' 'work of this moment,' spiritual undertaking collapsed. There was just What Is. Nothing more, nothing less.

Once spirituality gets organized and institutionalized, it starts to take on limitations. People begin to think it can only happen in a particular setting, that it requires external quiet or vegetarian food or something of that nature. The personality of the teacher gets conflated with the nature of awakening, so if the teacher happens to have a very beatific personality, for example, then people think that awakening always looks beatific. People adopt behaviors, diets, and life styles that they imagine to be 'spiritually correct.'

One of the liberating things for me in the Advaita world was the breaking down of all the forms and ideas I still had about what was spiritual and what wasn't. It was like breaking out of a shell.

Real bhakti, as far as I'm concerned, has nothing to do with adoring and fawning over some guru--although there may be tremendous love for a guru--but real bhakti is simply the nature of clear seeing.

When you are in love, you delight in every detail and nuance of the beloved. You are absorbed in the beloved. You see only beauty. You hold nothing back. You are unrestrained. All inhibitions melt away. You are completely naked. You cannot find the dividing line anymore between lover and beloved, between seer and seen, between giving and receiving. You disappear. You find yourself in love with everything. The whole world seems to shine and sparkle.

Awakening isn't about being in love with a particular object; it's about the unconditional love that sees only the Beloved everywhere. Awareness, by its very nature, accepts everything. This is true love. This is what actually IS, not something a person does.

I have a little section in my book about bhakti:

One of my fears has always been that if I lost my grip, I'd turn into some mindless bhakti type swooning in devotion. Utterly useless, foolish, without shame. Fully in love, completely mad.

Is it possible to be a mindless swooning bhakti devoted to the rain, the traffic, the wind in the leaves, the utter simplicity of bare awareness?

K: Within the story that is apparently woven by the thoughts of the dream-character, is it of any importance to discover or encounter the jnani and bhakti aspects?

J: I would say, they are not two, and the discovery is that this unconditional love, this pure awareness is all there is. How that discovery apparently unfolds in the movie is of no real importance, and it can apparently happen in a million different ways. Truly, it is causeless and nothing happens. It has always been so.

Anyone who claims to be enlightened is deluded

K: If you compare the memories about the drive to talk about the beloved subject during Joan’s seeking and now, do you notice a difference?

J: The urge to communicate and express through writing and talking arises naturally here. In the past, there was a lot of reflecting on this urge, thinking about it, wondering if it was 'spiritually correct' or not. Would I be better off if I was silent? Should I keep writing? Should I publish the book? Should I offer meetings? Was this a huge ego game, one more escapist plot to give meaning to my life? Was I good enough, clear enough, awake enough for the job? Was I a fake? Should I charge money? Could I make a living this way? Did my teachers approve of my doing this?

Now it just happens. Tomorrow it might all stop happening. I have no idea. I no longer think about whether it's 'spiritually correct' or not. I have no sense at all of mission--no sense that I am 'serving' people or 'awakening' them or participating in some great evolutionary wave. None of that. It just happens--or appears to anyway--and it's very clear that there is no 'I' here doing it, and no way it could be otherwise.

K: Is there any change in the apparent story of Joan’s life now that there’s clarity?

J: It isn't as if 'clarity' is some 'thing' that entered 'Joan's life' at a particular moment in time, transforming her into a saint and neatly erasing all pain and suffering from her life. That's the personal enlightenment fantasy.

Clarity is a word that points to the groundless ground that is omnipresent and inescapable: Here Now -- This. Joan is an expression of this One Reality, not the owner (or finder) of it. Joan's life as a drunk and a drug-user (thirty years ago) was as perfectly an expression of this One Reality as Joan's life today.

There are many stories of Joan's life (many versions, many revisions, always being newly revised). Life itself is ceaseless change. Joan feels happy one minute and sad the next. She is full of energy and enthusiasm one day; she has a headache and acid indigestion the next. She is calm and loving in one situation; she loses her temper in another. Sometimes when she feels depressed or anxious, she meets the uncomfortable feelings head on, with no resistance or escape, just feeling it all fully and allowing it to dissolve; other times when she feels those same uncomfortable feelings, she scrambles about looking for relief (reading a book, turning on the TV, biting her fingers, checking her email, eating corn chips, whatever it might be). There are no enlightened people. Anyone who claims to be enlightened is deluded. Clarity is the acceptance that embraces absolutely everything. This acceptance is not something a person does. It is a description of what always, already IS. Everything IS being accepted--right now.

I could describe many changes in the Joan character over what appears to be time (once she was a drunk, now she is sober; once she thought about the future most of the time, now she doesn't think about it much at all; once she was desperately seeking enlightenment, now she isn't; once her hair was blonde, now it is gray; once, she used to think that she was closer to the truth when she was meditating than when she was eating corn chips, now that thought does not seem to arise). But those changes are all plot points in a movie. They are make-believe. They are incidental, meaningless.

Focusing on those kinds of changes (in Joan or in you or in anyone else) is focusing on the details of a movie plot. Nothing wrong with doing that, but it won't get you one step closer to the screen that the movie is playing on. In fact, the screen is there in every moment of the movie, and you are actually seeing the screen the whole time you are watching the movie. It is equally present in a scene of breath-taking beauty and in a scene of horrific terror. Just the way that the mirror is all you are really seeing in every apparent reflection. (All these various analogies break down at a certain point, so don't take them too literally or get stuck on them--any 'blank screen' or 'empty mirror' that you think you've found is just another movie image, another reflection--you are the seeing itself--no 'thing' at all--the Here and Now that IS accepting everything, even accepting the apparent non-acceptance).

It's very simple. Right now, right here--there is no 'Joan' at all. I'm speaking of direct experience, not belief. Look for yourself and see if it isn't so. There is just sound and sensation and visual images. That's all there is. There's no 'Joan' and no 'enlightenment' and no 'clarity' and no 'past' and no 'future' and no 'present' except in the mind. Thought and memory and imagination weave the story of 'me' and 'the others' and 'the world.' They create the illusion of time and continuity. And pretty soon the projector is rolling, and we get movies upon movies, stunningly realistic, but all make-believe. Joan and Her Journey to Enlightenment. Joan and Her Failures. Joan and Her Successes. How Joan Has Changed Now that There Is Clarity. How Joan Compares to Ramana Maharshi. Is She or Isn't She? On and on and on…and it's just like what happens when you turn on the TV. Even if the program is garbage, if you watch for half a minute, you'll begin to get absorbed in it.

So then we get the idea that the goal of spirituality is to turn off the TV and keep it off. And that is the goal of many schools of meditation. But this meditation practice is also a TV program. The root illusion is still believed: the one who is supposedly holding the remote and watching the TV. That one does not exist.

Seeing is happening, but there is no one doing it. That can be investigated directly right now. The 'I' who is seeing, reading, understanding these words is an after-thought, a mental image. Seeing just IS.

Everything just IS.

Who cares?

Garbage channel and sublime samadhi are different programs, different appearances. They come and go in an endless dance. Trying to get sublime samadhi to be on all the time is a fascinating game, and it's truly amazing how long hope can endure (along with the image of 'me,' separate from the TV, remote in hand, trying to get control). Finally, if you're very lucky, Ramesh's great question might spring to mind: Who cares?

That is not a nihilistic or cynical question. ‘Who cares?’ is a wonderful question.

[interview: Kees Schreuders]

For more information on Joan: www.joantollifson.com