There Is No After (or before) Awakening

Joan Tollifson, Aug. 20, 2023

Right Now, Just As It Is

It’s been hot and dry here in southern Oregon where I live, with dry lightning strikes and raging wildfires above and below the town where I live and often toxic air quality as a result. Last night the air quality improved for a while, and I went out for an evening walk in that gorgeous last light before the sunset, and as I was walking in a nearby park in that breath-taking golden-red light, it rained ever so briefly and slightly…not much…just a few tiny tiny very light little drops…and those raindrops brought forth a huge delight, as the wind suddenly stirred up and the first autumn leaves blew off the trees. It was one of those magical moments when you know with absolute certainty that God is real. And by God, I mean something profoundly sacred and greater than we can possibly comprehend, infinitely vast, all-inclusive, transcendent and immanent and closer than close. This morning I’d like to share an article I originally wrote for the Dutch nondual magazine Inzicht a year ago.

There Is No After (or before) Awakening
—Being Awake is NOW

Awakening, as I mean it, is being awake NOW to the boundless wholeness in which everything belongs. It has nothing to do with always feeling blissful, never having any sense of being a person, or behaving only in saintly ways.

I don’t think of awakening as a line-in-the-sand event with a distinctly different before and after. I realize some people in the movie of waking life do have sudden and powerful transformative events of this kind, but this has not been my experience. My awakening, if I want to use that word, has been the more common and gradual kind, comparable to an ice cube slowly melting—and even that is not really a good analogy because re-freezing can (at least apparently) happen. So more to the point, being awake is always only now.

I often wish these words like awakening and enlightenment had never been invented because they mostly seem to create a false idea of a goal, the sense that something presently lacking needs to happen in the future or the story that something impressive did happen in the past, or else some kind of identity as either an Awakened One or as someone who “isn’t there yet.” All of which, as I see it, is missing the point.

Present experiencing is seamless, thorough-going flux, impossible to pin down or pull apart. No solid, substantial “thing” ever actually forms or persists, including a person, an experience or a state of mind. A person is like a whirlpool or a wave—some kind of moving energetic pattern that never stays the same and that can’t be pulled out of the whole ocean or river in which it occurs.

We are not in the flow; there is only flow. Any idea about being a “permanently awakened person” is an oxymoron, out of tune with what awakening wakes up to!

But of course, people mean vastly different things by the word awakening. To me it signifies waking up NOW from mistaking the conceptual map world of thinking for the living actuality of present experiencing. It means seeing through the belief that I am a separate, encapsulated individual with independent free will, clear boundaries, and a definite beginning and end.

Awakeness recognizes that I am no-thing and everything, that aware presence or present experiencing is the only thing I know for sure with doubtless certainly, and that this presence is unbound and seamless, vividly present but impossible to grasp, ever-changing in its appearance without ever departing from the immovable (instantaneous, timeless) immediacy of Here-Now.

All of this is totally obvious and truly unavoidable—verifiably so any time I stop and check. But within this, even after any so-called awakening, the functional sense of being a particular person with functional boundaries still appears intermittently as needed, and the delusional sense of self can also pop back up at times, meaning that storylines may still arise of being mistreated, disrespected or misunderstood, moments of feeling defensive or upset, anxiety about the future or regrets and irritations about the past. In those moments, consciousness once again identifies as a person in the movie of waking life, concerned about “my” self-image and survival.

Once recognized, the bigger picture may never again be totally obscured or forgotten, and the delusional storylines may never again be completely believable, but the movie of waking life still shows up and the divine hypnosis, as it has been aptly called, can still take hold. And, of course, as a living organism, which is undeniably an aspect of what THIS is, a person does have boundaries, however permeable and unfixed they may be, and the bodymind is vulnerable to pain, disease, disability and death.

So even after any kind of awakening, and in the natural course of life, there is always going to be some movement or oscillation between contraction and expansion, melting and solidifying, the sense of encapsulated personal identity and the sense of being unbound presence without a center. If we take this movement personally as something that is happening to me, it will seem that “my” awakening comes and goes, that “I” (as the person) get it and lose it again over and over, and there will be a longing for “me” to be permanently established in “the awakened state.”

But when seen from the bigger context of the whole, undivided boundlessness is recognized to be ever-present, and what comes and goes is not unicity or awareness, but simply the intermittent, mirage-like thought-sense of separation. This mirage is made up of passing thoughts, ideas, memories and sensations, and ALL of this is a happening in and of wholeness. It has no more meaning than passing weather or changing shapes in a kaleidoscope. It is happening to no one. From the awakened perspective, there is no concern about “me” being awake or not awake. There is nothing apart from the whole to be one way or the other in any meaningful way. Unicity is all-inclusive. Awareness is the openness that includes both contraction and expansion, peace and agitation, light and darkness. The problem is always imaginary—just try to actually find the one who is unenlightened or not awake.

Human life, in my experience, is not perpetual bliss. It inevitably involves some measure of pain and painful circumstances, and life is not fair in terms of the distribution of pain. Some people have way more to deal with in this regard than others. There is also the potentially unnecessary and dissolvable suffering that comes from the ways we think about and react to both pain and pleasure—the resistance, the seeking, the clinging, the story-telling, the beliefs about it, the ways it becomes an identity, the ways we go over and over past hurts, our fears and desires about the future. Much of that is avoidable when seen clearly, and seeing through that is certainly a major part of awakening.

But some of that is tied in to genetics, neurochemistry, past trauma, brain injuries, social conditions, disease, and other factors of nature and nurture, and it may require more than a spiritual awakening to dissolve or to no longer be pulled under by—and some of that may never dissolve completely or permanently. For this reason, I find the idea that awakening solves all problems to be shortsighted and naïve. There are abundant examples of apparently deeply awakened people doing such things as sexually abusing students, committing suicide during a severe depression, dying of a drug overdose, or drowning in their bathtub in a drunken black-out. The reality is, humans are complex systems and all kinds of things can happen. But awakening isn’t about being a perfect person, whatever that would even mean. Awakeness is not concerned with personal perfection.

I’m pretty sure that no one is free of delusion or in a state of clear mindful attention 24/7/365. On the other hand, awareness is always here, there is nothing but unicity doing what it does, and we can never actually leave the present moment—so if we are lost in a miserable train of self-centered thought, or biting our fingers until they bleed, or drowning drunk in the bathtub, that IS our present moment—that is what unicity [this whole happening] is doing, and our thoughts and judgments about it, which also show up choicelessly, are meaningless blips of energy, because the actuality of this living reality can never be grasped conceptually or pinned down into the abstract concretized categories that thought creates. The living reality is like a Rorschach blot, and the conceptual interpretations are always fantasies.

To be awake, as I mean it, is to realize that none of it is personal, that all of it is a fleeting and inconceivable appearance, gone before it arrives. To be awake is to see the sacred everywhere, in everything, even in those moments of apparently not seeing it. To be awake is to recognize that the light and the dark go together like the two sides of a coin. There are no one-sided coins, and there is no findable place on a coin where heads becomes tails. And without the apparent (conceptual) “thing” that thought has carved out of the whole and labeled “a coin,” no heads or tails exist at all, because all such polarities only appear in relationship to one another. And so, from the awakened perspective, there is truly nothing to attain and nothing that needs to be eliminated.

Of course, when the wave knows itself as both Ocean and Ocean waving, it naturally moves in a more wholesome and compassionate way than when it imagines itself as a separate, isolated wave, cut off from the Ocean, struggling to survive and competing with the other waves.

In the example I often give, Buddha and Hitler are equally Ocean, equally water, but Buddha realizes that, while Hitler believes he is a separate, independent wave, at war with other waves. They move quite differently as a result. When we know ourselves as the Ocean, we are not likely to carry out a genocide or engage in wanton murder and rape. But we also understand that we are not actually separate from those who do such things, and that they are doing the only possible in that moment. We also know that there are moments when we all slip into delusion and do things that may be unskillful, unkind, hurtful or destructive. As the Ocean, we see the whole show as God sees it, with unconditional love, knowing that the Ocean is never really divided up.

Unicity includes viruses, pandemics, wars, cancer cells and serial killers as well as white blood cells battling infections and our human impulses to wake up from delusion and heal what is wounded. It’s all included in what is.

It can be noticed that all our interests, urges, ideas, impulses, desires, fears, talents, plans, intentions, actions and apparent choices appear spontaneously as a movement of life itself. There is no little “me” inside our heads sitting at a giant control panel pulling the levers, authoring our thoughts and making our decisions. It all happens choicelessly by itself.

We have no idea what our next thought will be, or what life will move us to do next. But however it shows up, it will always be right here, right now—just this, exactly as it is.

And how is it? Nothing we say or think can capture it. And yet, here it is, utterly obvious and completely unavoidable!

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