Reality, this life, the world, that which we experience in and around us, what is it really?
Perhaps most people don't dwell on this, but for me this question has occupied me since childhood.
I am four years old and I dig holes in the sandbox at kindergarten to see what is hidden deep under the sand. Other kids don't do that. Wells and sewers also hold my interest: a mysterious and hidden world right under my feet!
A little later, once I can read, I collect scientific articles from the Utrechts Nieuwsblad. The first results of DNA research, the beginning of space travel. I love it all. When I am older I devour books on elementary particles and cosmology and have a simple chemistry lab in my parents' garage. I am also admired at school for it. I am certainly not the most popular, nor the smartest, but at least I know things no one else knows. (Ha!).
From an early age, especially under the influence of my father, I get the message that I am not good enough. I am not the tough, handy, athletic boy he prefers. I am a shy bookworm, and the only way out of my feelings of inadequacy is to try to get better at something he and my schoolmates are absolutely not good at and earn respect that way ... Gathering knowledge becomes my thing, out of passion and interest, but certainly also out of need.
In addition to natural sciences, I devour books on parapsychology, UFOs, theosophy and things like that. As a teenager and young adult I consult the Tarot and the I Ching and practice astrology. All very exciting! A little later I read the books of Carlos Castaneda, J. Krishnamurti and others. I study philosophy for five years at the University of Amsterdam, join a radical-left activist group and take my first steps in therapy land.
During a visit to the Kosmos in Amsterdam (the weekly swing night), together with some people from the housing group where I live at the time, I have a profound experience. I buy some weed from the house dealer in the tea house and lite up a joint. The stuff doesn't work out well at all and I become very anxious and paranoid. The anxiety gets stronger and stronger until I am completely numb, utterly alienated and in my head.
From one moment to the next, my perception changes. I feel free, clear and fully present in my body. It feels fantastic! My mind and my body are exactly in sync. Walking, sitting, breathing, everything goes without a hitch. I walk around the building for a while. Only one person is on the same wavelength as me and we smile at each other in mutual recognition. All the other people are visibly in their heads and only concerned with themselves. Even when they talk to each other, they are not listening, but talking like robots running a program. I realize that I normally do that too, just like everyone else. I also realize that my biggest concern is what people will think of me, even when I am alone! But not now. I have the impression that I see exactly what people are thinking and I enjoy my condition immensely. I feel free and carefree.
Only when I go home do doubts arise: how can I deal with my housemates in this situation? They will not understand this. Doubt breeds fear and in no time I am back to being just neurotic and 'unenlightened'.
This preview, of course, makes me long for more! And I have long tried to relive this state of consciousness....
Then, in the early 1980s, I come into contact with students and books of the Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and a while later, after much hesitation, I decide to take 'sannyas' too, or become a follower of Rajneesh. People then popularly said that I have 'joined the Bhagwan'. I begin to wear red clothes, topped with a necklace of wooden beads and a medallion bearing the image of Rajneesh.
Rajneesh states that one can reach a state called "Enlightenment", where the individual merges with the cosmos and unity consciousness is discovered. That idea really appeals to me. Finding the real secret, being permanently "Awakened", knowing the Origin.... Fascinating! And apparently this is accompanied by a step-by-step development through meditation, which according to Rajneesh can coincide at the same time with the full celebration of life, a wonderful 'package-deal', right?
To achieve enlightenment, usually some blockages and conditionings also have to be seen through and removed by doing psychotherapy, it is said. You thereby become more and more aware, more and more centered, more and more alive, to eventually come to full fruition as an 'Enlightened Being' and your life becomes a 'flow', in sync with the universe.
And everyone would see that about me of course. How tempting!
Then follows a ten-year immersion into the chaotic whirlwind of sannyasin culture and subcultures with its therapy groups, communes, meditations, ecstasy trips, pushed visits to Oregon (Rajneesh's residence at the time), paranoia, intimidating leaders, emotional blackmail and lots of manipulation. But also with silence, connection, fantastic parties, lots of exuberant and joyful energy. I come into contact with Zen, Sufism, shamanism, tai-chi, tantra, rebirthing, bioenergetics, dehypnotherapy, etc.., in short with all branches of alternative spirituality and humanistic psychology. I half and half believe in karma, reincarnation, chakras and chanelling.
I've done it all and it's taken me a long time to shake off all that stuff and realize what I've actually been doing. It has taken me a long time to really stand on my own two feet, feel good about myself and stop wondering what some figure on a stage can tell me about my life.
Incidentally, not all therapy and meditation has been useless to me. As a "spaced-out" mindfucker who is mindless in his head (just look at the picture), I don't think I've gotten any worse for it.
But what are the lessons I learned from this adventure? (There are a few, including that I'm really not a commune person).
Perhaps the most important lesson is that running away from what is going on here and now, in search of a (future and permanent) way out of feelings of lack and deficit, is a very bad (and also very costly!) idea.
But I only learned that lesson much later, after first getting to know the Australian 'Master of the West' (seriously!) Barry Long and then a whole series of satsang teachers, both in person and through dozens of books and countless videos.
I learn my lesson by recognizing that I don't have to be a 'fuck-up'. I can take responsibility for my life, learn and master skills, be active in the world and gain respect.
And as a result of my grounding in 'ordinary' life, I begin to question the whole santuary of 'spiritual' concepts, practices and teachers. I begin to see that all these things are learned and that there can be no path that I can follow to arrive at, yes, at what exactly? This so-called "enlightenment", what exactly does it mean? Ask almost anyone who is 'spiritual' and you get as many answers, but no seeker knows it from their own experience. A carrot is put in front of you and we follow it obediently, thinking that life will eventually become more pleasant, full of 'bliss' and 'love' and 'ultimate knowledge'. And that forever! For we are in fact 'Pure Consciousness', which after the death of the body remains as a kind of ghost, haunting.
"This constant juggling of concepts about supreme beings, souls, reincarnation, transcendence, self-realization, and enlightenment serves only as a tactic of postponement. All we really know is now. When you lose interest in spiritual pipe dreams, your craving for a pain-free life will weaken. Then your attention will remain naturally where it belongs—not in some fanciful trouble-free future, but in this moment, which is the only moment one ever has, the only moment one must deal with, and the only moment one actually can deal with. Seeing that simplifies matters considerably, I find. The wise among us enjoy and suffer a fully human experience with an equanimity they are powerless to explain, albeit countless ones have tried." (1)
Joan Tollifson on Facebook, October 17 2021:
"What is this whole happening that we call life or the universe? What am I?
These are perennial questions that arise in the human mind. Functionally, on a practical level, it is the job of the mind to figure out where I am and what's happening—what's safe and what's dangerous. This is a basic survival function of the organism, and on a practical level, it works quite well. Thought can conceptualize and map out the living actuality in such a way that we can navigate and do what we need to do.
But when thought goes to work on these bigger, more abstract questions, it tends to create more and more layers of delusion and confusion. The questions themselves involve thought-generated conceptual abstractions such as, "me," "the universe," "life," "I," "person," "body," "mind," "consciousness," "awareness," "totality," and so on. These are all abstract ideas in which some aspect of the living actuality has been carved out of the whole and reified into an apparently separate "thing." When we look carefully, we discover that none of the "things" that thought labels can actually be separated out from everything else or pinned down in any stable and persisting way. None of them, not even chairs and tables, have the solid, substantial, persisting, independent existence that the labels suggest.
At the same time, it would be silly to deny the apparent reality of chairs and tables and you and me. But we can't actually get hold of any of these apparent "things." We can't really say that what shows up here is something, and at the same time, we can't say it's nothing either. THIS simply can't be contained in any conceptual formulation. Permanent, impermanent, flowing, flashing, immovable, changing, unchanging, ever-present, ever-changing, self, no-self, oneness, multiplicity—none of these descriptions completely holds up under careful examination. Reality itself is simply impossible to capture in concepts and words.
Many of these abstract formulations are useful in everyday life—we can't discard them. But when we mistake mental maps for the living territory itself, we end up confused and suffering. When we try to eat the menu instead of the meal, we end up malnourished. This always sounds so obvious, but in our actual experience, it gets very subtle and nuanced, and it's remarkably easy to be fooled because the maps are so ubiquitous and so easily and commonly mistaken for life itself.
When we're talking about chairs and tables, we don't tend to get into too many problems. But when we start talking about "awareness" or "consciousness" or "the self" or "me," what's being referred to is much less concrete, in some cases non-existent, and different speakers may mean entirely different things by such words, leading to more confusion and misunderstanding. And when we ask such questions as, "What is the meaning of life?" or "What happens to me after I die?", we are talking about totally abstract or imaginary things, including "meaning," "me," "after death," and future time. But we tend to become completely hypnotized and bamboozled by these concepts and thus habitually give their apparent referents a reality they don't actually have. Thus, these seem like meaningful and urgent questions, and our tendency is to think and think and think about them, and/or rush around to hear what various spiritual authorities think about them.
On the spiritual search, we get easily tangled up in the mirage-world of ideas, trying to make sense of everything in our search for security, comfort, control, permanence, and lasting satisfaction. We try to secure an advantage for this imaginary "me" who seems to be at the center of "my" experience by doing a variety of things. Such things might include trying to identify as boundless impersonal awareness rather than as a separate bodymind. Suddenly there is "me" trying to identify as "awareness" and not as this "body" or this "mind." This effort often feels like trying to lift ourselves up by our bootstraps.
But all the while, through all this thinking and rushing around and tugging at our own bootstraps, life is effortlessly presenting itself. Hearing happens, seeing happens, awaring happens, hunger happens, eating happens, thinking happens, breathing happens, and so on. The actuality isn't divided up into those neat separate categories, of course—the actuality is boundaryless, seamless, unresolvable and fluid. And it all happens by itself, even our apparent efforts and choices, even conceptual mapping, even rushing and tugging and seeking and thinking, even confusion and delusion. None of it is personal, all of it is empty of substance, no word-label is ever the thing it names, no "thing" is ever really a "thing" because nothing holds still, and because nothing can be pulled out of the whole, including a so-called "person" or a "me." That "me" is a mirage. It has never really existed. So how can it be eliminated?
Awakening, as I see it, isn't really about finding something or getting rid of something. It's more like waking up from this conceptual bamboozlement, not once and for all, but here and now.
Who or what wakes up? As soon as we try to answer that question, we fall into confusion. The question itself seems to presume that it must have an answer, that by looking, we will find something or someone that is sometimes asleep and sometimes awake, some essential substance perhaps, or an observer-controller apart from the observed, or an awareness that stands apart from what appears. But what we actually find is nothing—and at the same time, everything!
This present appearance is undeniable. What is it? We can't say! THIS simply can't be pinned down in any dualistic and exclusionary category such as existence or non-existence, real or unreal, permanent or impermanent, meaningful or meaningless. Nothing we say or think can capture the immediacy of what is. THIS here and now is obvious, undeniable and unavoidable. It cannot be doubted. What can be doubted are the interpretations of it. But even the interpretations are nothing other than THIS showing up as interpretations.
Truly, there is no way to not be this. There is nothing that needs to happen or not happen. There is no one apart from THIS to get it or lose it. There is only this."
(1) Robert Saltzman, The Ten Thousand Things, Chapter 16