ecstasy of what is: “… This-here-now is ungraspable …”  ~ Joan Tollifson

ecstasy of what is tollifson thunderstorms monument valley

“The only time we suffer is when we believe a thought that argues with what is. When the mind is perfectly clear, “what is” is what we want.”Byron Katie

“Mindfulness is the energy of being aware and awake to the present moment. It is the continuous practice of touching life deeply in every moment of daily life. To be mindful is to be truly alive, present, and at one with those around you and with what you are doing”  … and … “Life is available only in the present moment. If you abandon the present moment you cannot live the moments of your daily life deeply.” Thich Nhat Hanh

“The only thing you know for sure is: ‘here and now I am’ .”Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj

“Eternity is that dimension of here and now which thinking and time cuts out. This is it. And if you don’t get it here, you won’t get it anywhere. And the experience of eternity right here and now is the function of life.” ~ Joseph Campbell

Indeed, the luminaries above are all saying the same thing in their unique ways:  this … here … now … is it! … it is truly what matters …  this phrase or principle has been heard countless times and in countless scenarios/situations  … so much so that sadly, for many, it has become cliche … yet literally it is all there is – in its fullness and its profound implications! …

For Joan Tollifson it is the Ecstasy of What Is … that she explores in the 2022 edition (by New Sarum Press) of her original 2003 book Awake in the Heartland: The Ecstasy of What Is … as she aptly says:

What if we drop all the labels, categories and frames that we use to contain our experience? What if we’re just here? Right now. What is this?

That’s what this book is about.

It’s not about finding an answer. It’s about that aliveness that can’t be objectified or grasped.

And, Joan clarifies her use of the word ecstasy – in the 2022 Foreword (below) – an important and necessary clarification …

So, today we start our deep dive into this ecstasy with this multi-part series that offers an in-depth look into Joan’s book through chapter excerpts … and in this Part 1, we start with her 2022 Preface followed by the first two sub-chapters – A Sea of Jewels and This Is It (from the chapter – boldly yet aptly – titled The Tao That Can Be Spoken) … which sets the stage for our series.

All italicized text below is from Awake in the Heartland: The Ecstasy of What Is by Joan Tollifson (2022 edition by New Sarum Press) and is published here with her generous permission.

AN, Here are all of Joan’s posts on Stillness Speaks … and her website – full of deeply insightful and valuable content for your journey.

Awake in the Heartland: Ecstasy of What Is – 2022 Author Preface

This is a book about what could be called radical nonduality, Zen, Advaita, or meditative exploration in the context of an actual life with all its messiness.

The book was self-published in 2003, acquired and published by Non-Duality Press in 2006 and then later by New Harbinger after they acquired NDP.

awake in the heartland ecstasy of what is joan tollifsonThis new edition is being brought out by New Sarum. Although several prefaces and afterwords have come and gone over the years, the main text of the book has remained unchanged since it was first published in 2003.

The heartland refers to the center of the United States, the Midwest, a region with the reputation of being ordinary, down-to- earth, plain-spoken, no-nonsense. I was born in the heartland, in Chicago, and this book tells the story of my return there in middle-age to be closer to my mother in her final years. Some places on earth are associated with spirituality and transcendence, places like India and California, but Chicago is more likely to be thought of as the opposite of spiritual, which is part of what I loved about it. The title is meant to suggest being awake in the ordinary, awake in the Heart, and awake in Chicago—or any other place (or situation) that isn’t obviously spiritual. In my view, everything and every moment is spiritual.

The subtitle, “The Ecstasy of What Is,” is not pointing to ecstatic experiences. All experiences are inherently impermanent—they come and go. The liberation to which this book points has nothing to do with feeling ecstasy all the time. The subtitle is meant to evoke the ecstatic or radiant nature of what is in its entirety—flowers blooming, people falling in love, people dying, hearts breaking, babies being born, airplanes flying into buildings, earthquakes wiping out cities, thunderstorms, genocides, spring breezes, explosions in distant galaxies—the full catastrophe, as Zorba the Greek called it.

Please don’t adopt anything in this book as a new belief system. I hope that this book will invite the reader to stop, look and listen—to explore and be open to surprise. If you find any answers in this book, let them go. This-here-now is ungraspable and inconceivable.

A Sea of Jewels

“In the clear light of present awareness, whatever appears is vibrant, beautiful, sacred. The vibrancy, the beauty is in the awareness, in the presence, not in the object.

ecstasy of what is sunset vibrancy awareness tollifson

One day at the post office in Oakland, I saw a little girl, who was maybe four or five years old, in line with her mother. The little girl was totally alive, looking at everything with amazement. She ran to the wastebasket in the corner and gazed down into it as if into a sea of jewels. She was ecstatic. The mother kept pulling the girl back, telling her to stop this and stop that. Every other word the mother said was “stop” or “don’t.”

Finally they are up at the window, and at the next window there is another mother who has a little baby in a basket sitting on the floor beside her. The first little girl stands beside the basket, and the baby and the girl gaze unabashedly into one another’s eyes with total absorption. The mother of the little girl again pulls her back. As they leave, the little girl waves goodbye to the baby as if to her dearest friend.

It was such a clear display of the unobstructed love, wonder, and awareness that is naturally here, and the process of human socialization which trains us to pull back from this aliveness, to stop looking, to stop being ecstatic, to close down. We learn to shut down and to live more and more in a mental world of ideas, so that by the time we are adults we are uncomfortable looking for too long into a stranger’s eyes. And it would never occur to us to run up to a wastebasket and actually see what’s inside it as something we’d never seen before, with curiosity and interest. Because by the time we’re adults, we think we know what’s in there. We’ve got a word for it. It’s garbage. We don’t see it any more. And we don’t see one another, or the love between us, because we’re afraid of it. We’ve learned that a person who would look with wonder into a public wastebasket, or too long into a stranger’s eyes, is a crazy person, a mad person. We’re afraid to be in love, except in the allowable, relatively safe confines of romantic relationships, or perhaps in rare moments of communion with babies and very young children. For the most part, we’re cool, detached, afraid of the natural ecstasy of being.

man watching milky way ecstasy of what is tollifson

Our lives feel empty. We long for the spontaneity, joy, and wonder that we seem to have lost. We take workshops and consume mind-altering substances to regain it. We undertake rigorous meditation practices and throw ourselves at the feet of exotic gurus. We run up enormous visa bills, looking for what is simplest and most ordinary, for what is always already here.

When we finally “get it,” we get nothing at all. We have not arrived at some fascinating foreign place. We’re exactly where we always have been—right here. Here is all there is. But when we’re looking for something else, we don’t see how extraordinary here actually is. We’re preoccupied.

Here and now is alive. It’s the only thing that actually is. In the clear light of present awareness, whatever appears is vibrant, beautiful, sacred. The vibrancy, the beauty is in the awareness, in the presence, not in the object.

This Is It!

this is it tollifson hummingbird

For one instant, abandon all labels, formulas, answers, beliefs, stories, explanations, expectations, and all efforts to understand or achieve a result of any kind. Give up everything you’ve ever been told, everything you’ve read, everything you’ve experienced, everything you know, every idea about what is or what might be. Let it all go. Completely give up. Hold on to nothing at all.

What remains?

If you are trying with your mind’s eye to see what remains, give up that effort. Let it go completely. Simply be, without words, without knowing anything.

You are here. You don’t need to look in the mirror to confirm it. You don’t need any authority to tell you. You know you are here. Ideas about who or what you are (your name; the idea that you are a person; your body image; your life story; your beliefs; all your scientific, spiritual and psychological concepts), these are all added on later. They are an overlay. But that you are is undeniable. You are here. Here is always here. It’s always now. Now is what is. Just as the eye cannot see itself, this is-ness cannot be seen. Presence cannot be known in the way we know objects and information, as something outside of ourselves. In that sense, it is utterly unknowable. But at the same time, we do know it, without any doubt at all. It is the one thing of which we are absolutely certain.

Call it emptiness, presence, awareness, the Tao, the Self, God, groundlessness, the Absolute, Consciousness, or refuse to speak about it at all. It eludes all attempts to capture it. It is truly nothing. And yet, here it is. Here you are. Presence. Awareness. This.

magical sunrise this tollifson

What is this?
What are you?

Are you the character in the story, or the aware space in which the story appears and disappears? Is the character even real, or is it an image—a creation of thought, memory and sensation; a product of neurochemical blips and firings in the brain; a mirage?

If the character is no more real than a dream, what is it that is dreaming?

This is no-thing “you” will ever find. Any thing you find is part of the dream. But who is the dreamer? Who are you? What is the dream itself? What are all the dream objects actually made of?

Any answer is a dream.

~ Joan Tollifson


Stay tuned for more from Joan’s book …

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Embracing the Ecstasy of What Is includes a deep appreciation of the oneness of us all … and in that spirit let us minimize (& hopefully dissolve) the current humanitarian crisis unfolding in Ukraine … by helping in whatever way we can … and to that end here are some options:

1) NPR: Want to support the people in Ukraine? Here’s how you can help

2) Washington PostHere’s how Americans can donate to help people in Ukraine.

3) Go Fund Me: How to Help: Donate to Ukraine Relief Efforts.

4) USA Today: Want to support the people of Ukraine? These apps and websites can help you send money.

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We are all facing financial challenges but IF your situation allows you to donate and help then please do so …


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Byron Katie’s quote from her website page The Work 101.
Thich Nhat Hanh 1st quote from his foundation website page Be Mindful in Daily Life and the 2nd one from healingbrave blog – though the actual source for this one can not be verified.
Nisargadatta Maharaj quote from I AM: The complete ‘I am’ quotes of Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj.
Joseph Campbell’s quote from The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell (Author), Bill Moyers (Author, Collaborator).
Images (edited & Logo added): 1 & Featured) Storm approaching Monument Valley by jovannig, 2) Cover page from Joan’s book – New Sarum Press 2022 edition, 3) Very beautiful sunset and glow atmosphere after sunset by Vovantarakan, 4) Silhouette of a man standing on top of a hill, watching the Milky Way by astridsinai, 5) Ruby-throated Hummingbird (archilochus colubris) by steve_byland, 6) Silhouette of man on the beach looking at magical dramatic sunrise by #2) provided by Joan for free use on our digital assets. All (except Joan’s book cover image) are purchased from depositphotos, all are for use only on our website/social channels (these images are not permitted to be shared separate from this post).


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