The wholeness of undivided, intimate attention – an awareing that has no boundaries, no sense of separation, where observer and observed are both obliterated in a single movement of observing – is the subject of one of Denise Levertov‘s last poems, First Love. The whole poem is sublime, but the final few lines speak so powerfully to me that I’m singling them out for this post.
It seems to me that one taste of that timelessness changes everything. This is not some cunning escape into yet another thought-bubble; not some desperate effort to transcend one’s mediocre little life. This is an experienced glimpse of another order of relationship. Haven’t we all had this glimpse? For me, it took hold of the steering wheel and has driven the trajectory of my life.
Through the entirety of your lifetime, what is it that you’ve deeply desired?
What has been – is – the Great Motivator of your days?
`Convolvulus,’ said my mother.
Pale shell-pink, a chalice
no wider across than a silver sixpence.
It looked at me, I looked
filled me as if
I, not the flower,
were a flower and were brimful of rain.
And there was endlesness.
Perhaps through a lifetime what I’ve desired
has always been to return
to that endless giving and receiving, the wholeness
of that attention,
– Denise Levertov, from First Love
in This Great Unknowing, Last Poems
Painting by Léonard Tsuguharu Foujita (1886-1968), Morning Glories (Convolvulus)
Sometimes a poem demands a visual counterpart; sometimes an image demands a poem; occasionally the symbiosis is stunning.
This much-loved poem from Hafiz paired with Scott Morgan‘s sublime photograph delivers me to a View that is boundless.
I dance there, breathe there, and I am grateful for this Grace.
Now is the time to know
That all that you do is sacred.
Now, why not consider
A lasting truce with yourself and God.
Now is the time to understand
That all your ideas of right and wrong
Were just a child’s training wheels
To be laid aside
When you finally live
Hafiz is a divine envoy
Whom the Beloved
Has written a holy message upon.
My dear, please tell me,
Why do you still
Throw sticks at your heart
What is it in that sweet voice inside
That incites you to fear?
Now is the time for the world to know
That every thought and action is sacred.
This is the time for you to compute the impossibility
That there is anything
Now is the season to know
That everything you do
Image: Scott Morgan – www.thissimplegrace.com
Perilous? Why? Because it’s so easy to forget that so-called ‘pointers’ are made-up stories that never tell the whole story; they can never open up the whole view. Why? Because, like all thoughts, they are limited. They may be briefly effective as an antidote to another outworn concept; they may shift our focus to a new story that seems to expand our understanding.
But mostly they just fizz around in their own isolated and fragmented way like mental bullies, ostracising other idea-bubbles that dare question their superior understanding. What’s more, pointers can easily become addictive. How? Unless they are seen for what they are, they play right into thought’s conviction that there must be One Ultimate Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything.
(Thought wasn’t satisfied with ’42’ for long. LOL)
Pointers should come with a warning: Beware, extended habitual usage may cause blinkered vision.
With her characteristic penetrating insight, Joan Tollifson reminds us that no matter where we find ourselves right now in our exploration of existence, we can only be aware of a nano-portion of the immensity of aliveness: “Nothing is just one way.”
Very often, people read or hear something—and this pointer triggers a profound insight or shift for them. Something opens and clarifies. They see the truth of what is being pointed out. But then, very often, they fixate on the pointer and make it into a dogma. I see people do this all the time with a number of popular pointers: the idea that there is no choice, the idea that there is no self, the idea that there is nothing to do and no one to do it and therefore any practice or exploration (such as meditation or inquiry) automatically reinforces the false self, the idea that there is no such thing as awareness, the idea that awareness is the ultimate reality, the idea that there is no way to describe the living reality and therefore anything anyone says (other than that) is false and should be dismissed, and probably a few others I’m not remembering at the moment. Each of these ideas points to a truth (or an aspect) about the nature of reality that can be directly realized. The mistake comes when people fixate on the pointer and land on one side of a false, dualistic, conceptual divide (choice or no choice, self or no self, practice or no practice, effort or effortlessness, something to do or nothing to do, something that survives death or nothing that survives death, the world is real or the world is unreal, and so on).
Pointers are useful, but they become a hindrance when we fixate on them and turn them into fundamentalist dogmas. It’s easy to see this tendency when it shows up “out there” in fundamentalist Christianity or fundamentalist Islam, but it’s harder to see it in ourselves. We think we’re beyond all that. But I see this dogmatic fixation and fundamentalism happening all the time in the nondual subculture. We fixate, for example, on the notion that there is no choice, that everything is a choiceless happening, that there is no individual chooser. This is a very liberating discovery, a profound insight. But it’s only a partial truth—reality itself can’t be boxed up that way. And if we fixate on that as the whole truth, then if anyone dares to speak of “choosing” in any way whatsoever, we instantly pounce. Wrong! We tell them. We don’t listen anymore to what the person is actually saying. Our mind has already been made up. We’ve landed. We’re stuck on one side of an imaginary divide, identified with a particular formulation, ready to defend it to the death. I’ve certainly seen this tendency in myself at times—it’s quite human. It’s how the mind habitually works.
Some people look at the list of recommended books that I include on my website and wonder how on earth I can reconcile such seemingly opposite viewpoints. As I say at the top of that page, “This list includes books from a variety of different perspectives, and in many cases, they may seem to contradict each other. Some of them say that life (including you and your whole spiritual journey) is nothing but a dream-like illusion, while others say this present happening is all there is. Some insist that there is nothing to do other than exactly what is happening, while others offer some kind of apparent process, practice or method for waking up. Some seem to suggest that “you” have the power of choice, while others say that everything is the result of infinite causes and conditions and that there is no one apart from this whole happening to direct or control it. Some say liberation is found in the realization of complete impermanence while others insist it comes with the recognition of that which never changes. Who has it right? What should you believe? No words or concepts can capture reality. Maps are useful, but they can only describe and point to the territory itself. Eating the meal is what nourishes you, not reading the menu. Take what resonates and leave the rest behind. Don’t believe anything you read, but instead, question, look, listen, feel into it, and see for yourself. The book that wakes you up one day may lull you to sleep the next. Always be ready to see something new and unexpected.”
I want to encourage all of us to stay open to new possibilities, to seeing things in a new way, to questioning our assumptions and conclusions. It’s easy, especially if you’ve written Facebook posts or books or been teaching something one way for twenty or thirty years, to feel uneasy about seeing things differently or changing your mind! How will that look? What will people think of you? But who cares? In fact, this living reality is no way in particular. It is ever-changing, evolving, dancing, vibrating, unfolding—while at the same time never leaving Here-Now. It never resolves into some final package, some ultimate formulation. There is no finish-line on this pathless path from Here to Here, no definitive model or map that captures reality. What all true pointers are pointing to is the living reality, and the living reality is ALIVE—fluid, spacious, open, ungraspable. It’s not frozen or solid or one way only. It can’t be pinned down. To take but one example, unlike the picture of it in an anatomy book, the living breathing human body is porous, ever-changing, moving, pulsating, oozing, circulating, being born and dying moment to moment at every level, and utterly inseparable from its so-called environment. It is more like a verb than a noun. No map is the same as the territory it describes. Whatever we say (choice or no choice), it can never capture the ungraspable, unresolvable, indeterminate, living totality that it attempts to describe.
Sometimes everything opens up when we hear a teacher say that there is nothing to do. And at another time (or for someone else), everything opens up when we meditate or engage in meditative inquiry of various kinds. Sometimes formal meditation is helpful. Sometimes it becomes a hindrance. Sometimes we need to hear there is no choice, and sometimes we need to hear that there is a choice. Nothing is just one way. A good teacher pulls the rug out from under wherever we try to land. If we assert there is no choice, they push us to see how there is. If we insist there is a choice, they point out that there isn’t. We can’t pin them down. They don’t fixate. They don’t offer rugs to stand on—they pull all the rugs out from under us.
There’s a great Zen story in which the teacher and student have been talking late into the night, and finally the teacher tells the student it’s time for the student to leave and go back to his sleeping quarters. The student opens the door and says, “It’s very dark outside.” The teacher offers the student a lighted candle to find his way home. Just as the student receives the light, the teacher blows it out.
I can’t help but think of the parable of the blind men and an elephant, which, according to Wikipedia, “originated in the ancient Indian subcontinent, from where it has been widely diffused.” It tells the story of six blind sojourners that come across different parts of an elephant in their life journeys. In turn, each blind man creates his own version of reality from that limited experience and perspective.
John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887) penned a poetic version called Blind Men and the Elephant:
It was six men of Indostan,
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.
The First approach’d the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
“God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!”
The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, -“Ho! what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me ’tis mighty clear,
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!”
The Third approach’d the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
“I see,” -quoth he- “the Elephant
Is very like a snake!”
The Fourth reached out an eager hand,
And felt about the knee:
“What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain,” -quoth he,-
“‘Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!”
The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said- “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!”
The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Then, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
“I see,” -quoth he,- “the Elephant
Is very like a rope!”
And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!
So, oft in theologic wars
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean;
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!
Image: Hanabusa Itchō (英 一蝶, 1652 – 1724), Blind Monks Examining an Elephant, Ukiyo-e print.
Today is the 4th day of the 4th month and 9 years since my mother breathed her last at 4am.
This little blog was created to express my gratitude for her wondrous wideawakeness and wisdom; she was a priceless teacher for me. Her lessons – lived in her everyday life – deepen and mature in me as the years go by. She gave us 97 years of her presence. Even on her deathbed she was wide-eyed and full of praise for everyone.
This year I’m moved to share words from two teachers she’d have loved for their open-hearted honesty, warmth, sweetness, and for their radiant wisdom: Joan Ruvinsky and Robert K Hall. Joan was speaking shortly before her death. Robert is still with us, but his departure is immanent.
just this… in all its simplicity…
welcoming what is here already…
not coming… not going…
obscured even by seeking…
So we meet in the paradox of apparent teachings, retreats, trainings or gatherings, to celebrate and explore this nameless presence that we are. At first, there is the tendency to accentuate the myriad of practices the yoga tradition has developed, to focus on concepts like nondual, true nature, awareness, self-inquiry or other-inquiry.
But all this activity eventually leads us to a giving up. And in this surrender what is revealed is seen to be what has always been here, before the search began, during its full intensity and after its cessation. The task turns out to be ceding to stillness, and in that stillness the recognition of just this.
Falling back and resting in what is so familiar that it has been overlooked during all the body sensing yoga, during all the pranayama, all the yoga nidra and amidst all the dialogues, amidst life itself, we find our self simply sinking back into just this.
Letting go is not an easy process, especially how much I’m enjoying life, surrounded by so much love and people who take good care of me… I have talked at length about my experience and difficulties about the dying process… today I’d like reflect on the positive side and share my experience about the joy of dying…
This short talk (8:07) expresses so much warmth, love, joy and presence, it will melt your heart.
For more videos and audio teachings: Robert K Hall Dharma Talks
When the inevitability of one’s life-package and its path becomes evident and one realises that nothing could possibly be other-than-it-is, the sweetest awe and appreciation flood into the space left empty by the imaginary controller. It’s often misunderstood, this disappearance of the doer, and explained away with all manner of hypothetical imaginings. Actually, it isn’t understandable or able to be conceptualised by means of any erudite definition or name. Best then, to leave the labels alone and keep silent unless confessing one’s own experience.
Wislawa Szymborska’s poem didn’t fall from my own pen, but it expresses to perfection the astonishment and gratefulness I experience as I reflect upon the wondrous “coincidence” of the life-pack I call mine. This is probably my favourite poem of 2017.
I am who I am.
A coincidence no less unthinkable
than any other.
I could have different
ancestors, after all.
I could have fluttered
from another nest
or crawled bescaled
from another tree.
holds a fair
supply of costumes:
Spider, seagull, fieldmouse.
each fits perfectly right off
and is dutifully worn
I didn’t get a choice either,
but I can’t complain.
I could have been someone
much less separate.
someone from an anthill, shoal, or buzzing swarm,
an inch of landscape ruffled by the wind.
Someone much less fortunate,
bred for my fur
or Christmas dinner,
something swimming under a square of glass.
A tree rooted to the ground
as the fire draws near.
A grass blade trampled by a stampede
of incomprehensible events.
A shady type whose darkness
What if I’d prompted only fear,
If I’d been born
in the wrong tribe
with all roads closed before me?
Fate has been kind
to me thus far.
I might never have been given
the memory of happy moments
My yen for comparison
might have been taken away.
I might have been myself minus amazement,
someone completely different.
– Wislawa Szymborska
Photograph of clouds on Jupiter, courtesy of NASA.
To study the self is to forget the self.
To forget the self is to be enlightened by the ten thousand things.
– Eihei Dogen
If one is very fortunate indeed, one comes upon – or is found by – the teachings that match one’s disposition and the teachers or mentors whose expression strikes to the heart while teasing the knots from the mind. The Miriam Louisa character came with a tendency towards contrariness and scepticism, which is probably why she gravitated to teachers who displayed like qualities. It was always evident to me that the ‘blink’ required in order to meet life in its naked suchness was not something to be gained in time. Rather, it was clear that it was something to do with understanding what sabotages this direct engagement. So my teachers were those who deconstructed the spiritual search – and with it the seeker – inviting one to “see for oneself.” I realised early on that I wouldn’t find any help within traditional spiritual institutions since their version of awakening is usually a project in time. Anyway, I’m not a joiner by nature.
I set out on my via negativa at an early age, trying on all kinds of philosophies and practices with enthusiasm and casting them aside –neti neti – equally enthusiastically. Chögyam Trungpa wised me up to “spiritual materialism” in the 70s; Alan Watts followed on, pointing out that whatever is being experienced is none other than ‘IT’ – the unarguable aliveness that one IS. By then I was perfectly primed for the questions put by Jiddu Krishnamurti – “Is there a thinker separate from thought?” “Is there an observer separate from the observed?” “Can consciousness be separated from its content?” It was while teaching at Brockwood Park that I also had the good fortune to engage with David Bohm in formal dialogues as well as private conversations. (About which I have written elsewhere.)
Krishnamurti and Bohm were seminal teachers for me; I also loved the unique style of deconstruction offered by Nisargadatta Maharaj. As it happened though, it took just one tiny paragraph from Wei Wu Wei to land in my brain at exactly the right time for the irreversible ‘blink’ to occur.
I mention this rather august lineage because it explains why the writing of Robert Saltzman strikes not just a chord but an entire symphonic movement for me. He is a mindshifter in the same tradition, a Manjushri for the moment.
We are peers; we were probably reading the same books by Watts and Krishnamurti at the same time during the 70s and 80s. Reading his book, The Ten Thousand Things, is, for me, like feeling my way across a tapestry exquisitely woven from the threads of my own life. I’m not sure that I can adequately express my wonderment and appreciation…
The candor, lucidity and lack of jargon in Robert’s writing are deeply refreshing. I also relish his way with words. He knows how to write. He also knows how to take astonishingly fine photographs, and these are featured throughout the book.
It’s been said that this book will become a classic, which is a pretty good achievement for someone who isn’t claiming to be a teacher and has nothing to gain by its sale. (The book sells for the production price.) He is not peddling enlightenment. He is simply sharing how it feels to be free from all the spiritual fantasies that obscure our seamless engagement with this miraculous thing called life, right now.
[I chose the excerpt below because it addresses the ubiquitous myth that freedom/awakening will deliver some imagined state of eternal happiness… ]
The only relief I know is the freedom one feels when finally the need for certainty comes to an end, replaced by a willingness to allow life to unfold as it does without knowing a damn thing about “cosmic” anything, either pro or con.
When I say “freedom,” I do not mean happiness. Nor do I mean immunity from ordinary human suffering. I mean the equanimity and peace of mind that emerge in the light of the comprehension that in this moment things are as they are and cannot be any different, including what I feel, and how I see and understand myself and the world.
Each of us sees a different world, and what each of us sees is oneself. This does not signify as some people believe that the world is not real. It means that what I see is not the same as what you see. What you see is you, and what I see is me. When this identity of seeing and seer is understood, freedom is obvious, for then there is no stand-in, no alternative, or substitute for the seeing what I see and being what I am in this moment. All I can be is myself, and all I can see is myself.
From my perspective, following a spiritual path, a religion, or a guru serves primarily as a means of avoidance – a way of replacing what one actually is right now with a vision of what one could be. This is the fallacy of becoming. Those who purport to teach methods of “self-realization” or paths to “salvation” are not awake, I say, but hypnotized by fancy ideas they learned from previous epigones. Then, having convinced themselves of their “attainment,” they regurgitate the nonsense they learned to imitate, hypnotizing their followers in the same fashion.
You are what you are here and now. There is no “later,” and there is, I say, no path apart from one’s own suffering, one’s own confusion, and eventually, with luck, one’s own understanding.
– Robert Saltzman, The Ten Thousand Things pp266-267
Robert Saltzman, The Ten Thousand Things
Thank you, Robert, for giving the remaining dead leaves on this gnarled old tree a fatal shake.