A Deep Soak in Reality
Reflections on Perfection and Imperfection,
Finding Enlightenment in Delusion, and
One Continuous Mistake
By Joan Tollifson
I got a question after my last Facebook post [a post where I had
suggested that true spiritual practice is not about self-improvement
and being calm and blissful all the time] that went something like
this: “I resonate with what your post purports, but I don't
understand why there are so many teachers and teachings that seem to
promise just the opposite, uncaused joy, fulfillment, some state of
something better than what is appearing now. It seems so different
than what the gist of your posting is about. What is going on with
many of these modern day teachings and teachers, are they just
selling something or are they somehow offering a different view of
the same no-thing, perhaps emphasizing the beatific aspects and
leaving out the other side of the coin? I don't get it. I'd like to
be clear about what is real and what is nonsense.”
Here is my reply, meandering around a number of issues that this question touched upon for me:
First off, the only way to be clear about what is real and what is nonsense is to wake up Here / Now. Then there is no confusion. Otherwise, we can easily get lost in analyzing, discussing and thinking about the pros and cons of different teachings and the legitimacy of different teachers. This is entertaining and distracting, and is often a favorite way in spiritual circles to stay in delusion, holding on to opinions and views, wanting certainty and the satisfaction of being right, wanting to be sure we are on the winning team and not the losing team—all keeping alive the dream-world that we think is reality.
Two of my teachers, Toni Packer and Joko Beck, broke new ground at the time by talking about how Zen practice (or “the work of this moment,” as Toni preferred to call it) related to ordinary, everyday life. They didn’t want people to get lost in abstract metaphysical ideas or to mistake wonderful, blissful experiences for real liberation. They were both very sharp, clear, honest, unseductive and unseducible teachers. You couldn’t bullshit them and they would never bullshit you. I was lucky to have them.
At one point, I complained to Toni that she focused too much attention on the problems in life (anger, fear, conflict, concern over self-image, feeling separate, etc.), all the things that obscured the groundless ground of peace, love, perfection and wholeness. At the time, I was newly enthusiastic about various satsang teachings, and I wanted Toni to talk more about the inherent perfection of what is, unconditional love, absolute freedom. But she saw dangers in doing that— how beautiful ideas can be like intoxicating drugs or security blankets, how we can so easily mistake the map for the territory and make something out of nothing, how we end up clinging to subtle new beliefs instead of actually letting go into true liberation. Zen teachers in general tend toward deconstruction and pulling every rug you try to stand on out from under you—telling you that if you find the Buddha, you should kill whatever Buddha you have found. Satsang teachers, on the other hand, are perhaps more prone to laying down gorgeous rugs—talking about love, oneness, bliss, peace—and then encouraging you to dissolve into the reality behind the rug. As Mooji put it: "Do not remind the world it is bound or suffering. Remind the world it is beautiful and free." Both approaches have their advantages and their disadvantages.
Those teachers like Joko and Toni who encourage us to be aware of the ways we get caught up in delusion and who remind us that life inevitably includes pain are not saying that life sucks and that enlightenment is just a pipe dream, so we might as well give up and get used to being miserable. They’re pointing to liberation, to the discovery of nirvana in the midst of samsara and enlightenment in the midst of delusion. Not once-and-for-all in some grand finish-line experience, but moment to moment, now and now. Those teachers who emphasize the light and seem to ignore the darkness are (at best) inviting exactly the same discovery.
Of course, some teachers, caught in delusion themselves, may indeed be selling something spurious and false. Any time teachers imply that they personally exist in a state of perpetual bliss, or when they make a big deal of their personal awakening story and it sounds as if they crossed some magical finish-line on a certain day and have never had a moment of delusion or suffering since, my bullshit detector lights up. Such people may completely believe their own story, and I can’t know what is true for them, but I do know that it takes a subtle attention and unflinching honesty at times to see the truth, and quite often for all of us, we don’t see things that are right in front of our face until we are ready to see them—until the conditions come together to make that possible.
Once we have declared ourselves enlightened, announced it to our friends, set up shop as a teacher, or put things into print that live forever on the internet, it becomes harder and harder to admit mistakes, disclose human failings, change our minds, or walk back exaggerated or false claims. The mind is very good at manufacturing things it expects or wants, and very good at denying what it doesn’t want to see. If we have put ourselves forward as an Awakened One whose suffering has completely and permanently ended, we may even come to depend on this image and the story behind it for our income and survival as well as for prestige and self-worth, all of which further motivates us not to see anything that might get in the way of this.
In this age of global communication, the marketplace is flooded every day with new arrivals, half-baked and ready to sell their promises. And many of them are very sincere and may even have some genuine insight to share. But it’s easy in that half-baked place to fall into the trap of hype and hyperbole, imitation and delusion, and to be convinced by our own fabrications and seduced by the good feelings of success. It’s a heady thing to be a guru. Hubris is an occupational hazard.
I started “teaching” (or whatever this is I do) much too soon in my opinion, or perhaps more accurately, I started out on somewhat the wrong footing (although of course in the absolute sense, there are no mistakes and everything happens in the only way possible). Yes, all my teachers at the time were encouraging me to hold meetings, and yes, I did have a lot of real insight and genuine clarity by then, and yes, the sense of being encapsulated in a separate bodymind had dissolved and there was an awareness of being the bigger context—although of course, however “awake” one is, in any moment when thought takes over and clouds the picture, the sense of being “me” can return and seem believable, as it often did back then (and as it often still does). I had just published my first book, Bare-Bones Meditation: Waking Up from the Story of My Life, and I would have been fine at that stage facilitating a meditation group, even giving talks and responding to questions, if only I had truly seen myself as a peer in a group of friends, a somewhat seasoned student able to facilitate a process of shared inquiry and practice. But I had deep feelings (stories, beliefs, delusions) of unworthiness and failure, and I longed to “be somebody,” and because I was at that time moving more and more into the satsang world of supposedly awakened guru-like teachers, I wanted to be like these guru types. I knew this was a false ego trip and a form of delusion, so it was a kind of secret desire that I tried to suppress or deny while simultaneously fanning the flames. On the surface, in my meetings with people and in my writings, I was always very down-to-earth and honest about my human foibles, but underneath the surface, I very much wanted to be the authority figure, the awakened one, the one with the answers, the one in the know, the super-star at the front of the room—not just another bozo on the bus, all of us looking and listening together.
In reality, I was in no position at that time to be a real teacher in the best sense of the word (and perhaps I’m still not). But back then, I was quite unsettled—I was still seeking, still falling at the feet of new gurus, still looking for some magical finish-line, still hungry for the approval of my teachers, still unsure about what I was even teaching, torn between the different teachings and styles of teaching with which I was resonating. In short, I was half-baked. I doubted myself, and because I was clinging to a positive self-image and fighting a negative one, I naturally felt put down and bristled inwardly with indignation when others seemed to challenge my authority or when they failed to recognize me as the one in the know.
Luckily, I had teachers (Toni Packer and Joko Beck) who were not given to aggrandizing themselves or making false promises, and they always acknowledged that they still fell into delusion themselves, that there was no such thing as permanent, perpetual clarity or bliss (unless we’re talking about the ever-present Now that belongs to no one). On top of being blessed with these two teachers, I have also been blessed with intermittent stormy and cloudy inner weather (what Eckhart Tolle would call a heavy pain body—addiction, compulsion, depression, and so on), which has been a blessing in part because makes it impossible to deceive myself into thinking I have attained permanent bliss. I know people who are by nature very relaxed and mellow and easy going, and as I often say, these inherent tendencies toward sunshine or fog are weather conditions like those that make Chicago different from Los Angeles. For a person with a disposition that is naturally sunny and easy-going, or for someone who has a big sudden dramatic shift—if this person either has no teacher, or has a teacher who isn’t very clear or very discerning or very honest, it is easy to see how a false picture can unfold and gain momentum, then snowball and multiply like a pyramid scheme.
Some people do experience dramatic shifts and do seem to end up in a place where they are relatively quite free of compulsive habits of thought (e.g., Eckhart Tolle), while others seem to unfold in a more gradual way (like me). Some of us have more conditions of nature and nurture in our bodymind that give rise to cloudy, stormy, overcast, turbulent weather. No two people unfold and open in the same exact way, at the same exact speed. And ultimately, all stories of unfoldment are stories—imaginary fictions, as is the one at the center of those stories. The reality—what’s real—is Here / Now. And in this, there are no awakened ones or deluded ones. There is no past, no future, no me, no you. There is only THIS that is unnameable but that has been called love, peace, bliss, freedom, perfection—the natural state, the groundless ground.
But relatively speaking, in everyday life, no one is perfect. We want our teachers to be perfect, and we want ourselves to be perfect. We don’t want that pesky fog! But the fact is, we all have blemishes, imperfections, blind-spots. We all step into the cosmic doo-doo from time to time. We all fall down. No one is beyond error, beyond mistakes, beyond hubris and delusion. And there is no finish-line in reality. So I would advise not swallowing what anyone says without looking for oneself…however clear and awake that person seems to be. And always continue to question our own assumptions, our own conclusions—especially the things we are absolutely certain about, our most cherished ideas and beliefs. Be willing to look openly, freshly, to see something different, to change our minds.
The great Zen Master Dogen beautifully said, “Those who have great realization of delusion are buddhas; those who are greatly deluded about realization are sentient beings.” In other words, enlightenment is nothing more than seeing delusion as delusion. To claim or believe that “I am enlightened and permanently beyond delusion” is delusion. The more clarity there is, the more subtle the layers of delusion that come to light. As they say in a Buddhist chant, delusions are inexhaustible. There is no end to delusion. And at the same time, it can end completely, right here, right now. (But notice I did not say, permanently—to paraphrase Buddhist teacher Anam Thubten, there may be enlightened people, but they only last ten minutes).
I can still bristle at times when “my authority” is challenged, and I can still be seduced by the image of myself as the one in the know or depressed by the story of being a failure. But at least now I can happily acknowledge that I’m just another bozo on the bus, and that most of the time, like the rest of humanity, I’m in delusion. I’m finding myself less and less interested in being the special one who sits at the front of the room doling out answers and feeling important, and instead, ever-more interested in a shared process of looking and listening and practicing together. In saying this, I’m not relinquishing my function at times as a teacher, nor am I suggesting that everyone is equally enlightened or equally awake, or that there is no place for teachers, or that everyone should have equal authority in every situation, or that sitting in a circle and having open “democratic” discussion groups is better than having a teacher at the front of the room giving talks and responding to questions, or that I will never again sit at the front of a room and give a talk. None of that is what I mean. But the teachers I trust most, those who have stood the test of time, are the ones who were most real. They admitted that they were often deluded and imperfect. They didn’t masquerade as permanently enlightened people, and they didn’t promise perpetual bliss.
This so-called teaching gig has been a learning experience for me—as it is, I think, for every teacher who is honest and genuinely interested in going deeper. It has been humbling and very revealing, and sometimes humiliating and not easy to see what I see in the mirror. I’ve often wanted to quit because I’m such a miserable failure and I’ve made so many mistakes. But then I remember Suzuki Roshi saying that the life of a Zen Master is one continuous mistake. I’m not saying I’m a Zen Master, just that this gives me the courage to keep walking, to keep making mistakes, to keep waking up to the fog.
What are we really looking for? What do we want? Where do we imagine we will find it?
For me, it really does boil down to being awake to this life, just as it is, right here, right now—this body-mind-world that I am. And that means living with the reality that sometimes—oftentimes—I am in delusion, believing in the mirage of self and other, trying to be somebody, thinking things shouldn’t be the way the are, looking for something “out there” to save me, pushing away the present experience, and even sometimes having the thought that “I should have realized everything I realize now when I was younger, back when I still had my whole life ahead of me, that would have been better, then I wouldn’t have screwed the whole thing up.” Ho Ho Ho.
Welcome to the human race, and more deeply, welcome to Life—this undivided, seamless, interdependent, boundless happening, this wonderful and sometimes terrifying dance where everyone is dancing perfectly—even those who are selling false promises, those who are stumbling in the doo-doo, those who are most deluded at this moment. In another instance, the music will change, and we will all find ourselves dancing a different step to a different tune…maybe falling on our face, maybe getting back up, maybe for one brief and beautiful moment dancing gracefully and being completely “in the zone”—and none of it is personal. (Or, if you prefer, ALL of it is personal).
There is the simplicity of what is, and then, thought comments and the neurochemistry hums along, and presto! —we have delusion— the mirage-like appearance that Eckhart Tolle calls our life situation, which is not what he means by the Now. This is an important, essential clarification. This is the difference between nirvana and samsara, heaven and hell, enlightenment and delusion. The latter (samsara, hell, delusion) is our life situation (conditioned perception, the stories we tell and believe, memories, mental images, thoughts and ideas, what I often call the movie of waking life) and the former (nirvana, heaven, enlightenment) is the Now (perhaps best left undefined and undescribed). Seeing clearly which is which is sometimes called the razor’s edge, the eye of the needle, or the gateless gate.
And in case you might be worried about falling off the razor’s edge—being misled or misleading others, or landing in the doo doo again, I’ll leave you with this little gem from Zen teacher John Tarrant (tarrantworks.com), author of the wonderful book, Bring Me the Rhinoceros:
“Oftentimes we go along with the unquestioned belief that there’s something wrong, and it’s probably wrong with us. Meditation practice can bring that out, too, with the thought that if I work hard enough, maybe I can finally get this right. But what if there’s not a problem? From the origin of the Universe there has been no mistake.”
That begs the question, if everything is already perfect, why do we bother with spiritual practice? Why meditate or go to satsang or read radical nondual books or whatever we do? In fact, this was precisely the burning question that drove Zen Master Dogen’s early search. Eventually he realized that practice is not something we do in order to BECOME enlightened, but rather, practice is the EXPRESSION of enlightenment. And so, we look and listen, explore and clarify—opening and dissolving, contracting and resisting, seeing delusion as delusion, waking up to the Holy Reality Here / Now. This is the activity of life itself. And eventually we begin to get it that the only place nirvana can ever be found is in samsara, just as the only place where enlightenment appears is in delusion. Heaven isn’t “out there” someplace. Form is emptiness and emptiness is not other than form. Or to paraphrase my first Zen teacher, Mel Weitsman, “We’re always looking for diamonds in the mud, but the mud itself is pretty interesting. That’s what Zen practice is about. The mud.” Or as he said elsewhere, Zen practice is “a deep soak in reality.”
And when you really see the mud, that very seeing is love, peace, joy, freedom—this listening presence, open and awake, being everything, holding to nothing.