Embracing what is: “You are perfect just as you are, and there’s room for improvement.” ~ Shunryu Suzuki

perfect as is yet improvement tollifson

“Practice is not about overcoming human problems. It’s not about becoming serene and transcendent. It’s about embracing our lives as they really are, and understanding at every point how deep and profound and gorgeous everything is—even the suffering, even the difficulty. So we forgive ourselves for our limitations, and we forgive this world for its pain … when we embrace the difficulty … we see this is exactly the difficulty we need, and this difficulty is the most beautiful and poignant thing in this world.” ~ Norman Fischer

Indeed, Norman captures the essence of embracing what is … and it is not surprising that the significance of this embrace in the journey of self discovery is well documented by many teachers … all suggesting that true transformation begins only when this embrace is earnest and without conditions …

In these turbulent times as humanity navigates COVID, the ensuing economic collapse, and ongoing social unrest … such an embrace – difficult and challenging as it may seem – offers an opportunity for us (both individually and collectively) to truly bring about deep transformation … an invitation, if accepted and followed through, can potentially lead to real and lasting harmony and peace …

So, today we’ll take a deep dive into “embracing what is” … through excerpts from Joan Tollifson’s recently published book Death: The End of Self-Improvement

But … before that …

As we’ve done since the COVID crisis began … we want to honor and highlight the “heroes” that continue to ensure our health and safety in the midst of the pandemic: Go Fund Me has organized many campaigns targeted towards the COVID-19 relief efforts. All of these campaigns are worthy of our attention … but for now we want to highlight TWO critical ones that we are supporting personally and also as Stillness Speaks (through donations):

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

… please visit  Frontline Responders Fund’s Go Fund Me page … and help deliver crucial supplies to these frontline responders …

… and/or visit  America’s Food Fund Go Fund Me page and help feed the neighbors in need.

And, we again, express our deepest gratitude to a) the COVID-19 Frontline Responders (all the healthcare professionals – doctors, nurses, hospital/medical-services staff – firefighters, law enforcement, volunteers, and any/all the people involved in keeping the “system-at-large” functioning for ALL of us) … and b) Go Fund Me for organizing America’s Food Fund to feed the needy.


sunset unicity ocean every wave tollifsonNow … back to Joan’s insights …

Explored through her book Death: The End of Self-Improvement … where she talks about the “only actuality there is” … the “aware presence in which the whole universe is contained” … that which has “no beginning and no end” … the “ever changing process inseparable from everything else in the universe” … that which is “gone forever and {always/still} right here”

Part 1 of this multi-part series was the entire opening chapter Dissolving … and

… in Part 2 (excerpts from chapter one titled Stepping Through the Mirror) Joan explored death by talking about … That which “cannot depart from itself ” … That which “has never been absent” … the “felt spacious openness at the very core of our being” … the “recognition that is very ordinary and always already here” … and more.

… in Part 3 (the ongoing excerpt from Stepping Through the Mirror) Joan delved deeper into awakening .. or what she terms unbroken wholeness : “… the ever-present actuality. What comes and goes is the mirage of apparent separation, the feeling of being a person in a story, the ever-changing weather of experiences positive and negative—all of that comes and goes. Here-Now (boundless awareness, the Ultimate Subject) is omnipresent. And nothing actually exists outside of this, or other than this. To awaken is to recognize the sacred everywhere, to live in devotion to this luminous presence, to wake up again and again from the dream of what we think is happening …”

… In Part 4 (the concluding excerpt from Stepping Through the Mirror) Joan considers the “natural next” question of what happens after death? … and addresses the subject of near-death experiences, reincarnation, and memories of past lives

In Part 5 (excerpts from the chapter Beyond Self-Improvement: Embracing What Is) Joan offers an in-depth exploration into “embracing what is” … an exploration deeply immersed with her own direct experience: “… true healing, transformation and liberation begin with the simple acceptance of this moment and this world, just as it is. As counterintuitive as it may seem, embracing imperfection, allowing everything to be as it is, loving what is—this is the gateless gate to a fresh start and the utterly new. Oddly enough, this is the secret of freedom …”

All italicized text is from Death: The End of Self-Improvement by Joan Tollifson and is published here with her (and the publisher New Sarum Press’) generous permission.

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

The Tyranny of Self-Improvement

All the great spiritual teachings ultimately point to a freedom that has nothing to do with self-improvement or control. ~ Darryl Bailey

Self-hate is pervasive in our culture, the feeling that we’re never good enough, that we always need to be improved, corrected or fixed in some way, the sense of shame and deficiency. Our society is obsessed with self-improvement, eternal youth, the pursuit of happiness.

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People feel tremendous pressure to eat the right food, go to the gym, excel in school, become somebody, be a winner, and never get old. We are deluged with stories about exceptional people and over-achievers. We read about ninety-year-old skydivers, quadruple amputees climbing Mt. Everest, people born into poverty who have become billionaires—and these become the standard against which we all feel measured. To be average or ordinary, to fail and be imperfect, is our worst nightmare.

Of course, it’s great to hear inspiring stories, to challenge ourselves, and to have a more positive picture of what’s possible in life if you have a disability or when you’re old. And I’m all for eating well and taking good care of ourselves. There’s nothing wrong with having goals and aspirations. That’s all part of the natural movement of life doing what it does. But it can easily become oppressive.

Many parents have huge expectations for what their children should do in life. Children feel the pressure. Many parents give their adult children the supposedly encouraging message that they will someday do something great, which of course carries with it the subtext that right now, whatever they’re doing is not that great.

When I mentioned the title of the book I was working on, Death: The End of Self-Improvement, to one of my oncology nurses, she was ecstatic. Yes! she said with a huge smile. She started talking about what she called “the tyranny of exceptionalism,” something that she’d been reading about that clearly resonated deeply with her. She told me that, in order to get her health insurance at work, she has to wear one of those wrist monitors that counts how many steps you take every day. If she doesn’t wear it or if she doesn’t take enough steps, no health insurance. I was stunned.

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If we get sick, we’re often given the message that we must have done something wrong. Maybe we were having too many negative thoughts, not meditating enough, not having the right relationship to our money. Maybe we drank too much coffee, ate too much chocolate or not enough kale. Cancer is blamed on everything imaginable. And as we move into old age, we often get the message that we must battle death and fight to live as long as possible. To die is to fail.

The spiritual journey becomes a quest for the biggest awakening experience. We compare ourselves to our favorite spiritual superheroes and feel inferior, never quite all the way “there” where we imagine they are or were. People announce themselves as “Awakened Ones” and then have to prove it and live up to it, which can result in enormous layers of self-deception, dishonesty and bullshit.

What a relief to finally let all this go!

Embracing What Is: The Curious Paradox

You are perfect just as you are, and there’s room for improvement.~ Shunryu Suzuki

The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change. ~ Carl Rogers

So, am I suggesting we should all sink into sloth and torpor, conclude that liberation is a pipe dream best abandoned, gorge on junk food for the rest of our lives, and allow such things as disabling depression, destructive addictions, racism, sexism, environmental devastation or animal cruelty to continue unchallenged? Is that the message of this book?

Clearly not. After all, how genuine transformation happens has been one of the main interests of my life. I’ve experienced and seen undeniable positive changes in myself and others through meditation, psychotherapy, somatic awareness work, spirituality and nonduality. I’ve seen positive changes in society as a result of political movements, some of which I’ve participated in. The women’s movement, the gay liberation movement and the disability rights movement have all made my life much easier and less painful. The changes I’ve experienced from inner work include sobering up from near-fatal alcohol and drug use, and leaving behind bouts of depression and such debilitating patterns of emotion-thought as self-doubt, self-hatred and shame. As someone who has spent much of the last four decades writing books and articles, putting on retreats, giving talks, answering emails, and meeting with people about waking up from false beliefs and exploring the possibility of being liberated on the spot, it would certainly seem that the alchemy of transformation has been central to my life. Of course, all of what I’ve just described only exists in a story constructed by memory. But relatively speaking, I’m all for positive changes.

transformation tollifson

Paradoxically, though, every time I’ve gone through therapy or delved deeper into some spiritual path or non-path, what has always emerged front and center at the root of it all is the willingness to be as I am; to be, on the human level, in some sense imperfect, incomplete and unresolved; and to see that this very person, warts and all, is already whole and complete, that this bodymind and everything it thinks and wants and does is a movement of the whole universe. Rather than trying to reach some ultimate perfection of “me,” or some imagined supreme enlightenment, it turns out that true happiness is a matter of simply being Here-Now, which is actually unavoidable; but what can fall away or no longer be believed are the thoughts and stories about this present happening, the interpretations, judgments, and ideals.

Even when people take up meditation to reduce stress and improve well-being, as many people do nowadays, even then, they soon learn that the usual result-oriented, end-gaining approach of trying really hard to get somewhere else—seeking, resisting, evaluating, judging, and so on—doesn’t work. Meditation, even as a wellness practice, begins with allowing everything to be as it is. In a way, even to say “allowing” or “accepting” is saying too much. Everything already is allowed to be as it is—obviously!—because it is as it is. So it’s more like simply acknowledging how it is, being present experiencing, which we already are. It’s not a doing, in other words. It’s more like not doing anything extra. Relaxing. Being what you cannot not be. And as the pathless path unfolds, everything is discovered to be an expression of this radiant presence that we are. Nothing needs to be pushed away or kept out. Everything is spiritual.

radiant presence tollifson

An interest in how change happens and the total acceptance of what is may seem like two diametrically opposed movements, but in fact, I have come to see that true healing, transformation and liberation begin with the simple acceptance of this moment and this world, just as it is. As counterintuitive as it may seem, embracing imperfection, allowing everything to be as it is, loving what is—this is the gateless gate to a fresh start and the utterly new. Oddly enough, this is the secret of freedom.

My first Zen teacher, Mel Weitsman, said that “our suffering is believing there’s a way out.” The Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa famously said that enlightenment is not final victory, but rather, final defeat. Another one of my Zen teachers, Joko Beck, spoke of Zen as “having no hope.” She also used to say, “What makes it unbearable is your mistaken belief that it can be cured.” None of these teachers were pointing to a state of despair, resignation or hopelessness, which is the flip side of hope, equally rooted in an imaginary future. Instead, they were pointing to how we can waste our lives in hopeful fantasies and “the pursuit of happiness” while missing the living reality that is Here-Now. We dream of the perfect location, the perfect house, the perfect career, the perfect partner, the perfect child, the perfect enlightenment experience, the perfect self, the perfect society, the perfect world, the perfect present moment—and all the while we are missing out on the actuality and perfection of life as it is.

perfection life as is tollifson

That doesn’t mean we should all vegetate passively on the couch or be a doormat for abuse. In fact, we cannot suppress or deny our natural desire for exertion and movement, our urge to take action, to respond to life, to seek pleasure and avoid pain, to dance the particular dance that each of us is moved to dance. There is a natural impulse to pursue what attracts us, to heal what is broken, to clarify what is obscure, to explore new territory, to discover and develop and extend our capacities and capabilities, to envision different possibilities, to help others, to bring forth what is within us. Astronomy, quantum physics, going to the gym, learning a foreign language, practicing meditation, playing music, taking up yoga, exploring various forms of awareness work, working for social justice, writing books, making art, raising children, starting a business, planning a trip to Mars, performing brain surgery, climbing mountains, rescuing abandoned cats and dogs, developing new software programs—all of this is the natural movement of life, something the universe is doing, just as the seed flowering into a tree, or the ecosystem evolving in ever new ways are all the natural and spontaneous play of life. Everything is included.


~ Joan Tollifson


Stay tuned for more … as Joan continues her in-depth exploration of “embracing what is” … in the next several posts …

Again, here’s Part 1: Death: Dissolving … and Part 2: Totally Obvious Yet Utterly Mysterious … and Part 3: Unbroken Wholeness … and Part 4: After Death: Reincarnation & More

All italicized text above (except for the Go Fund Me related text) is from Death: The End of Self-Improvement by Joan Tollifson and is published here with her (and the publisher New Sarum Press’) generous permission.

Images (edited & Logo added): 1 & Featured) Small creek rushing over the stones in the mountain canyon by york_76, 2) Cover page from Joan’s book, 3) Cartoon super busy man and father multitasking by ThodorisTibilis, 4) Busy woman doing many things at the same time by ThodorisTibilis, 5) Isolated transformation of Lime Butterfly by mathisa, 6) Cornish Bay by andyfox, 7) Ruby-throated Hummingbird In Flight by steve_byland. All are purchased from depositphotos, for use only on our website/social channels (these images are not permitted to be shared separate from this post).


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