Is the world
Are there really
or is there only
ever this dynamic,
Is the world
The reality of experiencing is always here, an effortless explosion of life that can never be switched off.
We are never apart from nor is it possible to find anything but this, the ceaseless, ever-changing, unpredictable flow of experiencing, the spontaneous reality of here.
What is reality? Well, we could say that reality is that which is being experienced, the felt sense or presence of that.
And what is experience? It is a dynamic, spontaneous, unpredictable apparition of zero duration, yet always present.
Look at anything and ask yourself, “Where am I seeing this?” Listen to any sound. Where is it occurring? Feel any feeling or think any thought and notice where those are arising. Whether we imagine events to be occurring inside or outside the body’s skin line, experience is always experienced, right HERE. Even if we say something is happening “over there,” that experience itself still happens here for in experiencing, there are essentially zero degrees of separation between the subject (experiencer) and the object (that which is being experienced). Nothing could be more intimate than experience. It’s closer than close. Nearer than near…
Now, for a moment, just feel into the presence of this closeness, this “here” in which experience is showing up spontaneously and continuously. As you explore the “space” of here, notice how it has no identifiable borders or edges to it, no boundary, no center, no circumference. We cannot, for example, tell where here ends and not-here (i.e., “there”) begins. The reality of experience is that it is simultaneously here but also not here, present yet not able to be found as any clearly identifiable, discrete thing. This is the paradox of “here,” it’s not findable and yet it is undeniably present, exploding with a seemingly infinite and unfathomable dimensionality, aliveness, depth, and meaningfulness.
This is the unfindable presence of here.
In any given moment, we may not like the particular shape Reality is taking. But the good news is that Reality is always present. Reality (aka, the presence of experiencing) is uninterrupted and continuous even if unfathomably diverse in the ways that it expresses itself. And so there can be no obtaining or losing Reality for there is only ever Reality, dancing in all its myriad forms.
Our attempts to accurately convey in words or concepts, the staggering complexity, depth and detail contained in every momentary flash of experience is akin to taking an eye dropper of water from a single wave and imagining we have somehow captured the entirety of the sea.
On Saturday, my Mom who had been valiantly battling pancreatic cancer for almost two years took a turn for the worse. It was fairly clear to all of us that day that she wouldn’t be with us for much longer. Sunday was a very rough day for her. But on Monday, she seemed somewhat revitalized. So I decided to head back home knowing that I would return in a couple of days time but also concerned that she might not live that long. I had the sense when we said what was the sweetest of goodbyes to one another that it might be the last time I ever saw her again.
Sure enough, no sooner had I returned home that night than she became very, very ill again. The next morning my brother Paul texted me saying that he was fairly certain Mom was dying, possibly in the next hour or so. So I hopped in my car and began the 5 1/2 hour trek back to Los Angeles. When I arrived, she was somehow miraculously still with us. I walked into my parents’ bedroom and my dear Dad who had been so tenderly holding her hand for hours said he wanted to give me the gift of holding it myself for a few minutes. It was quite something to be there in those moments as she took those long, slow breaths, very clearly beginning to make that mysterious transition we call, death.
Fifteen or so minutes later, my Dad returned to take her hand and I then sat at the edge of the bed, gently rubbing her feet, my brother, sister-in-law, daughter and niece all with their hands on her as well. As we sat there, I found myself whispering silently to her that it was fine for her to let go, to surrender into great peace and that we would all, especially Dad, be fine. It was very powerful. I could sense the swirl of emotions in the room, the rush of complex feelings and thoughts running through each of us: sons losing their Mom, a husband losing his beloved, granddaughters losing their remarkable grandmother… The dramatic nature of it all was quite something—very palpable, gritty and real.
As we were gathered together, feeling our dear Lena’s life slipping away and the immensity of responses we were each having to that inevitability, I remembered that beyond all the stories and narratives any of us might be running about what was being experienced (none of which could ever hope to capture the infinite, inconceivable nature of it), there was just this simple naked presence of what is, extraordinary at the same time, the simplest, most ordinary thing. Buddhism refers to it as suchness, the sheer existence or being-ness of everything. I found myself just relaxing into that. It was so obvious, so simple and so real. No abstraction, but simply pure actuality, pure presence, pure unelaborated experience. As I sat in the naked simplicity of what was arising experientially, I could feel my dear Mom’s breathing becoming slower and slower, her death feeling very imminent. [Mind you, all that I’m describing here really transpired in a matter of seconds.] Then, in a flash instant, that naked, raw, indescribable yet very tangible presence of reality seemed to grow brighter. And in the very instant of recognizing that simple, unadorned presence of what is, and feeling the power yet ordinariness of it, there was no more breath. My mother had passed…
It’s impossible to really describe that moment. There were of course the very strong currents of emotion—in a flash this beautiful soul who I so loved was gone. At the same time, her passing felt like a direct confirmation from her of the inconceivable nature of everything including what we call death, a potent reminder of the liberating power of moment-to-moment experience unencumbered by all the necessarily limited ways we define and interpret it. It felt that my sweet Mom’s passing was reminding me of what she and everything ultimately is—an indescribable, un-characterizable actuality, this vast, mysterious presence that neither birth nor death can define for it transcends all categories, all descriptions, all definitions…
Thank you for this immeasurable gift sweet mama, to witness your incredible light returned to the great, indescribable Radiance from whence it came. As I wrote many years ago in a song, “there can be no returning to what we’ve always been.”
One way to understand the function of human thought is that it’s a way the organism tries to model reality and through that modeling, make sense of it. Thinking is essentially an interpretive process, a natural functioning of consciousness/intelligence in which mental frameworks are spontaneously generated in an effort to map the territory of our experience. For example, the myriad ideas I’ve constructed about who you are essentially function as a kind of map that I use to make sense of my experience of you. But just as I might use a map of Paris to navigate around the city, maps, no matter how useful, can never fully capture or convey the richness and complexity of the actual terrains they seek to describe.
Thoughts, whether about persons, places or things, are also very much like captions. A caption tells us something about what we’re seeing. But regardless of how clever it might be, a caption can never possibly convey the infinite depth and detail of information contained in any visual image. Similarly, no matter what we think or imagine something to be (“that’s happiness, that’s fear, that’s a tree, that’s loneliness…”) our conceptualization of it can never quite capture or convey its incomprehensibly rich and complex nature.
And that, right there is the practice—to appreciate that the reality of experiencing is distinct from our virtual, abstract rendering of it. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with generating interpretive frameworks about experience. That’s what the perceiving intelligence appears to do, quite naturally. But that same intelligence can also recognize, experientially, that even if the descriptive frameworks we’re so familiar with are able to approximate reality, they can never adequately capture its inconceivable complexity, subtly and depth.
I used to imagine that I knew what things actually were in some sort of definitive sense. I had certain maps I invoked to make sense of and describe reality, ways of framing either the spiritual path I was on or the one I was inviting others to take up. And while I didn’t see it then, I now realize that I had overly dramatized the spiritual journey and its purported goals (enlightenment, realization, awakening, etc.). In spiritual circles, it has become near gospel that the process of human transformation is going to be an exceedingly difficult, painful, disorienting, concept-destroying one, an arduous path in which we literally have to die to and surrender everything we’ve ever believed to be true about ourselves or life. Sound dramatic enough for you?
As an example, there’s a quite famous contemporary meditation teacher who is fond of saying that we should meditate “as if our lives depended on it, because they do.” No doubt, such statements have a kind of idealistic, romantic allure and appeal, conjuring up images of (ourselves as) heroic figures encountering amazingly difficult obstacles while on incredibly important journeys of transformation.
Here is a quote from another teacher:
“What if you let go of every bit of control and every urge that you have, right down to the most infinitesimal urge to control anything, anywhere, including anything that may be happening with you at this moment? Imagine that you were able to completely and absolutely give up control on every level. If you were able to give up control absolutely, totally, and completely, then you would be a spiritually free being.”
It sounds so dramatic doesn’t it, to give up everything for the sake of truth—all our desires, all our beliefs, all our control? The question is, is it really true? Must everything be given up or let go of in such an absolute, dramatic way in order for profound transformation to occur? What if all of this dramatizing, romanticizing and absolutizing of the spiritual path wasn’t necessary? What if we didn’t need to surrender anything or everything? What if it wasn’t necessary (or even possible) to give up all beliefs, to stop thinking, interpreting, or conceptualizing, or surrender the ego into the fires of truth? Could it be that it’s possible, maybe even more effective to engage in spiritual practice and inquiry without this dramatic sense of urgency and seriousness but instead come to it, more in the spirit of lighthearted curiosity and playfulness? Could it be that the overly romanticized, do-or-die, “I must surrender and die to the separate self at all costs” mentality is precisely what perpetuates the sense that we are in fact, bound, stuck, separate selves in the first place?
What I’ve observed is that this tendency to dramatize and absolutize what must happen in order for people to wake up and remain awake spiritually has the unintended consequence of perpetuating the fundamental illusion, the idea that we were ever actually asleep or separated from reality, life, God (call it what you will) in the first place. Telling seekers that they must “give up the false self,” or “rest unceasingly in awareness” ends up perpetuating as much if not more misunderstanding than it clears up. Believing we must surrender thoughts, beliefs, the self-sense, etc. serves to reify or concretize those very things. Proclaiming that the spiritual aspirant must give up control, drop the separate self-sense or abide in awareness serves to perpetuate the illusion that such experiences (e.g., feeling a sense of control, having the belief one is separate or losing contact with awareness) are actually obstacles to reality rather than expressions of it.
What if we could have our proverbial cake and eat it too? What if we could experience a sense of being an individual and continue having beliefs, desires and so on at the same time, recognize that all these characterizations of human experience are themselves utterly beyond the ways in which we tend to characterize or define them? What if it wasn’t so much letting go of all that we believe in, giving up control, surrendering ourselves or dying into some transcendentally fiery cauldron of truth but instead, simply seeing that these supposed “things”—control/letting go of control, surrendering/failing to surrender, feeling separate/feeling undivided, recognizing awareness/failing to recognize awareness—are themselves, ALL already infinite and wholly transcendental in their very nature and existence, transcendent in the sense of being expressions of a Reality that is, in the end, simply not describable or capable of being characterized definitively?
The conventional spiritual narrative is that we are confused human beings stuck in some nightmarish illusion that we must, like heroic figures in some grand drama, awaken and extricate ourselves from once and for all. However, what if this simply wasn’t true? What if rather than having to liberate ourselves from bondage, confusion, stuck-ness or lack of awareness, we simply needed to see (if we’re so inclined) that those experiences are not what we’ve imagined them to be based on the limited and partial ways we’ve tended to categorize and define them? What if we needn’t give up control or the self but instead, merely see—in a playful, curious way and whenever we feel moved to—that the experiences we label as “needing to be in control,” “feeling we’re in bondage,” “stuck in the illusion of being a separate self” or “losing contact with awareness” are themselves transcendental expressions of a boundless, fathomless, inconceivable reality? Could it be that no experience need be let go of or transcended for every moment of experiencing is already transcendental, already infinite owing to its indefinable, indeterminate, indescribable nature?
While we can parse reality in a million and one different ways, what I find myself increasingly drawn to, both in my own inquiry and my sharing with others, is simply to explore the nature of experience very intimately and directly to discover what it actually is, beyond my definitions of it, to see all the ways the reality of our experience outstrips, transcends, and defies any efforts to definitively categorize or define it. I can appreciate that categorizing and describing different experiential dimensions with such terms as awakening, post-awakening, absolute, relative, conditioned, unconditioned, identified, liberated and so on can be useful as ways of provisionally mapping the territory of what we might call human maturation. But what reality continues to reveal to me is that experiences never actually correspond, at least not exactly, to the conceptual maps we human beings have come up with to define them. For me, all there is, is this sense of unending exploration of what this presence of experiencing actually is beyond any of my attempts to pin it down linguistically or fit it into some interpretive map or framework. Wonder and awe increasingly seem to be what I am left with.