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.