freedom: “… The universe is not bound by its content, because its potentialities are infinite; besides it is a manifestation, or expression of a principle fundamentally and totally free …” ~ Nisargadatta Maharaj
Nisargadatta Maharaj words are a clue to answering this posts title question …
This clue merits further exploration … which Joan Tollifson undertakes – eminently – in the chapter titled How Free are we? (which she aptly anchors with Nisargadatta’s above quote) … in the 2023 edition of her book: Painting the Sidewalk with Water: Talks and Dialogs about Nonduality (originally published in 2010) …
…in Part 1 Joan starts answering Why Sit Quietly? … (recap: each chapter opens with a short talk by Joan followed by Q&A with the audience) … and …
… in Part 2 she continues her unpacking of Why Sit Quietly? by delving further into what is, present moment, being present, silence, stillness, and awareness … which lets her make a compelling case that true meditation is awareness … …
All italicized text above and below is from Painting the Sidewalk with Water: Talks and Dialogs about Nonduality by Joan Tollifson (2023 edition by New Sarum Press) and is published here with her and New Sarum’s generous permission. A PDF of the Table of Contents is available for download at the bottom of this post.
How Free Are We?
How much freedom do we really have? Instead of immediately rushing in with our preferred answer that we are convinced is true, can we leave that question open and unanswered? For me, it is a beautiful koan that continues to unfold and open. Is it possible to wake up, right now, from all the thoughts, ideas, beliefs and habits of mind and body that recreate and reincarnate “the same old world” and “the same old me” moment by moment out of thin air, out of habit?
Nonduality, Buddhism and Advaita are all in some way about cutting through the imaginary limitations and problems created by conceptual thought–seeing how we habitually and unconsciously choose bondage over liberation, seeing how we are doing our suffering. Waking up is discovering another possibility.
Of course, when I say that “we” do these things, I’m not talking about the phantom self, which doesn’t really exist. So it’s not about blaming ourselves or others for “choosing” bondage or creating suffering. This “choice” happens out of infinite causes and conditions. It happens out of ignorance. It is a kind of hypnotic entrancement, not some personal failure. But it is possible, when it is, to see how this “choice” gets made, to become conscious of how we do our suffering, to wake up from this entrancement. Just as delusion is not a personal failure, awakening is not a personal success. It is the dissolution of that very idea of separation, limitation and ownership. Waking up is the activity of the True Self – boundless awareness, the intelligence at the heart of everything.
Here/Now is totally open and unpredictable. Awareness has no boundaries and no limits. The survival mind keeps trying to locate and solidify itself, get a grip, figure everything out. Trying to end this reincarnation of suffering is more of the same habitual movement of the mind. But the seeing of that movement as it happens is outside the habitual loop. The seeing–the awareness–is free and unbound. Here/Now, before thought, we cannot say what is possible and what isn’t. This moment is absolutely new. It has never been here before.
All solidity and limitation is imaginary. The whole movie of waking life is a dream-like appearance, an imagination, a play of consciousness. Perhaps this is what the miracles in the New Testament point to, that with faith in God, anything is possible. We can walk on water and move mountains. Of course, for me, “faith in God” doesn’t mean belief in some supernatural force outside of ourselves, and true freedom doesn’t mean walking on water.
The biggest miracle is Here/Now – every moment of ordinary life. When we really see, when we’re awake, everything is extraordinary. What makes it miraculous is not the content but the awareness that beholds and illuminates and breathes life into the momentary forms. Awareness is what we love in the beloved. When we dissolve into this openness that is always Here/Now, we act from a place that is unbound. When we wake up, the whole world wakes up, because we are not separate.
No one is the same from one instant to the next. Everything changes. But thought solidifies people and things in the mind, so we think we’re the same person we were yesterday, and we think we know who that person is – a compulsive fingerbiter maybe, or a loser, or an enlightened sage, or someone with money issues, or a seeker. When we sit down to breakfast with our significant other, or go to work and run into our boss, we imagine that we’re talking to the same person who was there yesterday or the day before. But no person has ever really existed as anything other than ever-changing thoughts-images-stories- sensations-shapes appearing in consciousness.
When we talk about how the past is completely gone and no one is the same from moment to moment, that doesn’t mean we should deny history or stop planning intelligently for the future. If every time I run into a certain person, he hits me over the head, it’s useful to be able to remember that. Remembering history is useful. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel every day. The danger with history is in the solidification – making absolute what actually isn’t. If I am convinced that this person will definitely hit me over the head because that’s what he has always done before, and so I assume that he always will, then something goes awry that doesn’t have to. Then we have the Israeli/ Palestinian conflict. Because even though I might be careful around somebody who (so far) always hits me over the head, in fact, he might not do that the next time, because he is not really the same person who was there before and I’m not the same person either. If I can meet the person who is here now openly, without knowing who he is in this moment, that openness actually creates a space for him to change, whereas if I see him as an aggressive, “bad” person, he may very well conform to my image. In so many ways, we influence and create each other because we aren’t really separate. If I see that infinite causes and conditions drove this person to hit me, then I will approach him with compassion and unconditional love rather than with blame and hatred. In the Rule of Saint Benedict, the monks and nuns are instructed to treat everyone they meet as Christ. As Jesus said, Whatever you do unto the least of these, you do unto me. Love begets love, and hate begets hate. Waking up is breaking the cycle of hate and opening the door of possibility.
We can’t make this kind of openness and love happen on command anymore than we can move mountains on command. It doesn’t work that way. But it may be possible (when it is) to see how we get mixed up, to see the false as false, to see how we move away, how we postpone, how we create and recreate our apparent bondage. By giving nonjudgmental, loving attention to what we are doing and how we are doing it, everything changes naturally. This giving of attention is like breathing – we can’t really say whether we are breathing or being breathed. The attention I’m talking about is open, spacious awareness, not thought, analysis and rumination. It is not a task or a practice. It is our true nature. It has no cause and it seeks no result.
Is it possible in this moment to drop all of our ideas about ourselves and the world? Is it possible to fully enjoy the delightful sounds of rain or the amazing tastes and aromas of a cup of coffee? And maybe to enjoy not only the rain and the coffee, but also the wonderful and terrible messiness of human life with all its perfection and imperfection – this whole astonishing movie of waking life – without needing it to be any different from exactly how it is, and without imagining that anything has to stay the same. That is true freedom.
~ Joan Tollifson
Stay tuned for … more/other chapter excerpts from Joan’s Painting the Sidewalk with Water …
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