What Is It?

Joan Tollifson, September 30, 2023

“Where are you going?”
“I’m on a pilgrimage.”
“What’s the purpose of that?”
“I don’t know.”
“Not knowing is most intimate.”

—Zen koan, Book of Serenity, Case 20

The older I get, the more clueless I become, the less I know. More and more, I appreciate the utter simplicity and ungraspable mystery of this moment, THIS, before I put a label on it, think about it, try to explain it, figure it out, or put it into some metaphysical framework. Simply THIS. Utterly unpindownable but vividly right here.

“Once a monk asked Buddha whether there is an eternal self or not. He said that he would not answer such a question since it is irrelevant to spiritual liberation. For Buddha, grasping any concept is a distraction from living in the present.”

—Anam Thubten

Here is an excerpt from my first book, Bare-Bones Meditation:

Waking Up from the Story of My Life. In this excerpt, it’s the 1980s, and I’m in my thirties:

I started sitting at the Berkeley Zen Center. One day Mel Weitsman, the abbot and teacher, passed me in the garden and said, “We’ve never talked.”

“Talked?” I said.

He told me that it was possible to meet with him, to discuss your Zen practice. So I signed up. Maybe he could tell me what I should do with my life.

The following week, I went in to see him at five o’clock in the morning. He was waiting for me in a tiny candlelit room with an altar. I was breathless. I bowed to him the way I’d been told I was supposed to, and sat down on the cushion opposite him. My heart was pounding, my throat was dry. I felt as though I were meeting God.

“How’s it going?” he asked.

I nodded nervously.

“What comes up when you sit zazen?”

“I think about the future a lot,” I told him. “I always do. I can’t decide what to do with my life.”
“Do you have to do something with it?”

“Well, I mean, I think about going to acupuncture school…or becoming a therapist…”

“What are you doing now?” he asked.

“I do massage. But, I mean, that’s probably crazy. I’m always worried about what people are thinking when they arrive for the first time and I answer the door! A one-armed masseuse, it sounds like a bad joke.”

“If you think you can do it, then they’ll think so too,” Mel said. “I don’t see a problem.” He smiled. “What else are you doing besides massage?”

“Oh, I’m writing a book. And I study karate. And I do photography. And political work sometimes, although I’m not doing very much of that anymore. I feel kind of scattered. I start things and don’t finish them.”

“You have to find the thing you really want to do,” Mel said, “the thing you enjoy most. The thing you can’t not do. And then you have to stick with it. And not give up, no matter what. You have to let go of the paths not taken, and really allow yourself to deeply penetrate the one you’ve chosen. Otherwise, you’re just skimming the surface, window-shopping, always avoiding what’s in front of you, imagining there’s some way out.”

“But how do I know which path to pick?” I asked him.

“It’s usually the one that’s easiest, most obvious, right in front of you,” he said.

Writing or sitting zazen came instantly to mind. “Maybe I should become a therapist,” I said aloud. “I keep thinking I need a career. Something substantial.”

“You have to make a choice and then commit yourself,” Mel said. “You have to burn all your bridges, so you can’t go back. Nirvana is seeing one thing through to completion. Otherwise, life just becomes a lot of mental ideas about an imaginary future. You need to come back again and again to your breath, to the day you are actually having. Not the day you wish you were having, or the day you think you should be having, or the day you know you could be having somewhere else tomorrow, but this day that you are actually having right now.”

“Jesus,” I thought. “This can’t be it.”

“Are you still holding out the hope that you’ll get there someday?” Mel asked. “That you’ll find your ideal life?”

“I know it’s impossible,” I replied, “but I’m still holding out the hope,” I admitted.

“Your meditation practice will teach you the impossibility,” he smiled. “Some people spend their whole lives looking for it, but never doing it,” he said. “What is it?” he asked.

I wondered.

“That’s your natural koan,” Mel told me later. “What is it? Keep asking that question, all the time. Don’t try to answer it. Just keep asking. What is it?”

What is it? Wind, bus, thought, insect, sensation, sound, smell, breath. What is it?

All my life I’ve been waiting for something to happen…
I heard the raindrops on the roof and the birds singing in the courtyard. I heard car tires on the wet street…

“Enlightenment isn’t about getting something,” [Mel] told us. “With any great Zen master, it’s not what they have, it’s what they don’t have.”

I loved the sense of freedom, the relief of finally just sitting down and doing nothing at all. Listening quietly for the first time. Simply being alive. Hearing the rain.

“You are perfect just the way you are,” Mel said to me, “but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for improvement. Each moment is perfect, but you don’t have to hold onto it.”

— from Bare-Bones Meditation: Waking Up from the Story of My Life

Comparing Ourselves to Others

I was asked recently to say something about comparing ourselves to others. The first thing to notice about any such comparison is that it involves thinking and conceptualizing. Thought, identified as “me,” the separate self, is comparing itself, as an imagined object, to some other object(s). This is a very different mode of being from our actual non-conceptual present moment experience, which most humans habitually overlook in favor of the conceptual.

In bare presence, there is no center, no self to be found—only an open space of awareness beholding (being and holding) everything—the whole universe.

Paradoxically, as I said in my last Substack article, when that thought-sense of being a separate, encapsulated self-center is absent, we are free to be authentically ourselves as a human being. We are no longer self-consciously second-guessing ourselves, holding back because we fear disapproval, showing off to gain approval, or trying to be someone else. From our subjective perspective, we are not an object encapsulated inside a separate body. We are no-thing at all—simply open aware presence showing up as present experiencing—moving as life moves. We are like the ocean waving, a movement of the totality.

As a human being, a bodymind organism, each of us has a unique nature and nurture—unique genetics, neurochemistry, childhood conditioning, life experiences, physical health, attributes, abilities, talents, strengths, weaknesses, etc. Like different cities, different humans have different weather systems, different conditions. No two of us are identical. And we’re all movements of an indivisible whole, like waves in the ocean.

We are as we are, and in this moment, it can’t be otherwise. Thus, I find that it’s not very helpful to compare ourselves with others. We can only see or work with what’s here, and what’s here for each of us will be different. Just as some cities have more sunny or more cloudy days, or more or less stormy weather than other cities, some people are more prone to depression or anxiety than others, some have busier minds, some are naturally calmer, others more agitated by nature.

Some people are “better” than me in all kinds of areas, and others are “worse” than I am. I can compare myself (as an object) and then feel either superior or inferior, but to what end?

The only life presently here is THIS life, moving as THIS body, with THIS history and THIS life experience. No one else can be me. No one else can be you. We’re not here to be someone else. We’re here to be this unique waving of the ocean, not some other waving. All we ever really have experientially is this very moment, just as it is. That doesn’t negate past and future, but it all shows up NOW as this one bottomless moment, ever-changing and yet never departing from right here, right now.

Our suffering is mistaking ourselves for an object, an encapsulated separate self, and then comparing ourselves to others, thinking we should be other than we are, and believing that something (different, more, better) needs to happen.

Liberation (peace, ease of being, joy, freedom) is being no-thing at all, being just this moment, as it is. Not trying to grasp it, figure it out, or make sense of it (other than in necessary practical ways). Simple, simple, simple. Simplicity itself.

The whoosh-whoosh-whooshing of traffic, the sudden caw-caw-caw of a crow, the taste of tea, the laughter of children, breathing, heart beating, clouds billowing in the sky, a dog barking, the tree outside my window… just this.

What is it?

Some people spend their whole lives looking for it, but never doing it. What is it?

Don’t try to answer. Just live with the question, letting the question do (or undo) us rather than us trying to do (or answer) it.

Not knowing is most intimate. Nothing is really separate or other. It’s always just this!

Ungraspable yet vividly right here.

Don’t miss it!

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