………….and the importance of suffering
Joan Tollifson, September 24, 2023
My last article was focused on no-thing-ness. But as I see it, the spiritual life is not about erasing our individuality, transcending everyday life, or dismissing our human beingness as “merely a dream.”
Yes, the movie of waking life is dream-like in many ways, and yes, the spiritual path does involve seeing through the false sense of separation and the kind of self-reflective and oppositional thinking that is painful, and it does involve waking up from the hypnotic trance of believing all our thoughts and being totally captured and swept away by the dramas of emotion-thought.
And yes, it is about discovering and relaxing into the undivided wholeness, boundlessness, spaciousness, and no-thing-ness that is the very nature of this awaring presence that we are. And yes, there is great joy, freedom and relaxation in being nobody at all. AND….
The spiritual life is also about appreciating and honoring our unique individuality—and paradoxically, the more we see through the mirage-like self-image and realize the ephemeral nature of all our stories and identities, and the more we relax into open, spacious, thoughtless presence, the freer we are to be authentically ourselves as a human being—i.e., not always second-guessing ourselves, holding back, showing off, trying to be someone else, seeking approval, fearing disapproval, or trying to erase ourselves and be some kind of spiritual nobody (which is actually very much somebody).
In being awake, we’re free to be genuinely as we are in each moment.
From our subjective (inside) perspective, we are simply aware presence and present experiencing—doing what we do. That can even include exploring the psychological issues of our personality, seeing through and feeling beyond the ways we still sometimes get caught in the me-story and the self-contraction.
Each of us is a unique being—no two snowflakes are identical, and no two humans are identical, and that’s the beauty of life, that it is a seamless, undivided whole in which every moment and every momentary form is absolutely unique and vividly itself. No one else can be you. No one else can be me. We’re not here to be someone else. Yes, at the level of bare presence, we are identical, but in our shining forth, we are unique and beautifully so. And as Thich Nhat Hanh said, you don’t have to stop being a wave to be the ocean.
I talk a lot about waking up from the conceptual and not being completely caught in the thinking mind. But one of the most highly evolved features of human beings is our capacity for complex thinking, imagination, creativity and envisioning possibilities, giving rise to science, art, technology, culture, social organization and sophisticated levels of cooperation. We’re not trying to deny or get rid of all this.
But all of this functions in a much more wholesome and genuinely creative way when it is grounded in spacious, open presence—when we are not caught in the self-centered dream.
I love stories, movies, plays, novels—they take me to places I’ve never been, show me aspects of life I don’t know about, inspire me with how people resolve or survive great difficulties. They reveal our common humanity. They entertain me. I enjoy them. They help me to see life in new ways or more deeply. Yes, we’re waking up from the kinds of delusional stories that make us miserable—stories like, “I’ve ruined my life,” or “You’ve ruined my life.” Yes, we’re questioning the thoughts and beliefs that limit, confuse or mislead us, or those that provoke conflicts and misunderstandings. But we’re not trying to abolish all stories and live in a state of perpetual thoughtless, wordless presence. That’s not even possible.
Yes, it’s joyful and nourishing to be open, thoughtless, wordless presence—and it’s great when our words and actions arise from that ground—but the point isn’t to be in any one state of consciousness all the time, or to never think, or never again enjoy movies or tell stories.
Life is multi-dimensional and attention can move freely between dimensions. We can enjoy meditating and dissolving into emptiness, and we can also enjoy watching a movie or a football game, gossiping with a friend, reading about politics, marching for social justice, writing a novel or doing a crossword puzzle. We need both the boundless transcendent dimension and the everyday down-to-earth dimension that includes all the vicissitudes and adventures of human life. We need the light and the dark, the human and the cosmic, wholeness and particularity, relative and absolute, spirit and soul. It’s ALL included.
In his wonderful book The Light Inside the Dark, subtitled “Zen, Soul, and the Spiritual Life,” Zen teacher John Tarrant points to the importance of both the transcendent dimension of life that he calls spirit, and the down-to-earth dimension that he calls soul. “Spirit is the center of life,” he writes, “the light out of which we are born with eyes still reflecting the vastness.” Soul is “that part of us which touches and is touched by the world.” Spirit without soul tends to get lost in the absolute, he says, in the desire for “pure things: clarity, certainty, serenity… Spirit forgets the necessity of imperfection… It lacks poetry, melancholy, and everything voluptuous… Soul loves to include and to learn; it is always trying to embrace things, to inhabit the brokenness of the world.” But soul without spirit leads to materialism, addiction, being swept away by emotion-thought, feeling small and deficient. I love the way John marries these two vital directions in both his books and in all his work as a Zen teacher. I aspire to do the same, but in different moments or different articles, I may emphasize one aspect more than the other.
Buddha famously said life is unsatisfactory, out of kilter—life is suffering, and he offered a path to free us from unnecessary suffering, which is what we add on to unavoidable pain and painful circumstances by how we think about and resist them. The central symbol of Christianity is God himself nailed to a cross—misunderstood, misjudged, abandoned, tortured and killed—a crucifixion that opens into the resurrection, all of which I take as a beautiful myth about suffering and liberation. We can’t avoid the crucifixion and have only the resurrection.
The world can only appear in polarities—there is no up without down, no left without right. At the level of form, there will always be disagreements, conflicts, painful events, physical and emotional pain—this is part of life. Great literature, great plays and movies reflect all of this. They give us insights and awaken us to possibilities. They give us compassion for people we might otherwise have judged or not really seen. The difficulties in our lives are often the greatest gifts—in my case, having only one hand, being part of a minority that was often despised and discriminated against, being a drunk, having a fingerbiting compulsion I can’t control, getting cancer, living with an ostomy—these have all been sources of wisdom, compassion, deep insight and humor. They have connected me in profound ways with others. I wouldn’t have chosen any of them, but I’m grateful for each of them.
And yes, the spiritual path has offered helpful ways to see and work with all the elements of this life—but it hasn’t turned me into some formless blob of perfection. I still have dark days. I still have pain, sadness, grief, anger, fear, doubt, uncertainty—the whole range of human emotions. I still feel sorrow and sometimes anger when I see certain things that are happening. I still lose my temper and behave in mean-spirited ways on occasion. Upsets and troubling things don’t stick around as long, or drag me down, or seem completely believable in the ways they once did, but I’m not immune to human feelings and moods, the ever-changing weather.
Zen, one of the pathless paths in which I am rooted, is all about being this moment, just as it is—not wanting or trying to be in some other, better moment.
It’s about finding the sacred right here, right now, seeing the beauty in the ordinary, and giving simple open attention to what seems problematic, allowing it to reveal and undo itself naturally in its own time. In Zen, cleaning the toilet or emptying an ostomy bag is as sacred as sitting in meditation, chanting sutras or offering incense at the altar. Advaita-related approaches, the other pathless path in which I’ve been rooted, tend to emphasize dissolving into boundless, impersonal presence-awareness or pure spirit.
My main teacher, Toni Packer, seemed to bring together both of these seemingly different directions in her own unique way—and my expression also does that in my unique way. I find that both directions touch me deeply and are important in different ways. Balance is the key—not landing anywhere with finality, not fixating on any single view or position. Being open. Abiding in clue-less-ness, in not knowing, in the freshness of beginner’s mind. Open wonder and wondering. Right here, right now.