By Joan Tollifson
Body / No-Body
You have never questioned your belief that you are the body….it attracts attention and fascinates so completely that rarely does one perceive one’s real nature. It is like seeing the surface of the ocean and completely forgetting the immensity beneath. The world is but the surface of the mind and the mind is infinite. What we call thoughts are just ripples in the mind. When the mind is quiet…it dissolves and only reality remains.
The food body you are not. The waking state you are not. The deep sleep state you are not. You know the waking state. Since you know the waking state you are not the waking state. You know the deep sleep state; therefore, you are not the deep sleep state.
There is only a stream of sensations, perceptions, memories and ideations. The body is an abstraction, created by our tendency to seek unity in diversity.
The ‘secret’ of life that we are all looking for is simply this: to rest in the bodily experience of the present moment.
One teacher says that the secret of life is nothing more or less than present moment sensory experiencing, and another teacher insists that we are not the body and even suggests that nothing perceivable or conceivable is real. Is awakening about being fully embodied and awake to present moment sensory experiencing or is it altogether beyond the body and the senses and even beyond consciousness itself? If we only hear these different pointers ideologically, they seem to be totally contradicting one another. But if we really hear them, perhaps they are pointing to exactly the same realization.
Toni Packer, a teacher I was with for many years, often invites awareness of presently arising sensory experiencing: bird cheeps, the sound of wind, the sensation of our body meeting the chair, breathing, the beating of the heart. In her book The Silent Question, Toni writes:
It isn’t the content of the listening (such as birdcalls) that matters, but rather it’s the quality. Likewise in seeing, it is not what is seen that is of importance but the amazing fact that in the wholeness of seeing, the seer may disappear altogether! In complete seeing and hearing the ‘me’ is no longer the driving center, creating a dualistic world. Instead of the experience of ‘me’ and the flower or me and the birdsong, there is just the wholeness of what is heard and seen (touched and tasted) – too marvelous to describe in words: it is the ending of separation!
This wholeness (the ending of separation) isn’t something to get an idea about or think about, and it isn’t the content of any particular experience, such as the birdsong, but rather, it is the nondual seamlessness of the listener and the sound, for in reality, they are divided only by conceptual thought and language. The actual experience is simply undivided hearing. The aliveness, the beauty, the love, the joy is in the awareness, the listening presence, the wholeness of being.
The body turns out to be a wonderful field for meditative exploration. By tuning into the body with awareness, by exploring it as pure sensation, we discover that there is no “body” (except as a mental concept, an abstraction of thought), and we discover that the whole universe is our body. The boundaries are not really there.
This realization isn’t something mystical and exotic. It is rather something so simple, so immediate, so obvious, so ever-present that we tend to overlook it because our attention is absorbed instead in the ubiquitous abstraction created by conceptual thought that is overlaid on top of the bare actuality of being.
The actual experience here and now is nothing but ever-changing sensations. “The body” is an idea, an abstraction, a concept, a mental image, a thought-form. We can conceptualize a boundary-line between what we think of (and mentally picture) as “my body” and “the chair,” but when we look for this “body” with awareness, we find only ever-changing sensations and no clear delineation between “body” and “chair.” If we look with awareness for the place where “inside of us” turns into “outside of us,” we cannot find it. It, too, was only an idea! We know from modern physics that at the subatomic level, there is no solidity or substance and no boundaries. And this is our actual present moment experience right now, but we tend to ignore our actual experience in favor of the conceptual overlay that is so deeply conditioned and easily mistaken for reality. We mistake the map for the territory, the conceptual abstraction for actuality itself. We know from ecology that everything depends on everything else and that you cannot remove any part without altering the whole, but we easily overlook this in favor of our conceptual picture. We imagine a world of separate parts -- including “me”-- parts that can all be pulled apart and rearranged. Thus we imagine, “I could be somewhere else right now, and that would be better.”
In this abstract and imaginary world created by conceptual thought and story-telling, there seems to be separation and solidity. Bringing awareness to the present moment, to sensory experiencing, to the actuality of the body, erases the self completely, meaning that it erases the imaginary boundaries and leaves only everything, and this everything is seamless and all-inclusive.
The real body (no body at all) is not a cadaver or an anatomy book picture. It is alive and fluid and moving. Experientially, it is nothing but ever-changing sensations. And in fact, it's an ever-moving process of blood circulating, cells dividing, nerves firing, heart beating, lungs expanding and contracting, food being taken in and broken down, disbursed or eliminated. The body is in constant exchange with the environment, the skin is porous and breathing, flaking off, regenerating, the breath is coming in and going out. Your body now is not the same body you had ten years ago, or ten days ago, or even back when you started reading this page less than a minute ago. It is ceaseless change.
We can’t ignore the relative world in which we seem to be separate individuals in a world of other individuals, but we can learn to discern ever more subtly the difference between the anatomy book and the living body, between the map and the territory, between the thought of “me” and the actuality of present-moment experiencing. We can discover for ourselves that the actuality of the present moment is ungraspable and impossible to capture with thought, and that the deeper we go into the actuality of the body here and now in direct experiencing, the more we find no-thing (no body) at all. And yet, this nothing (or nobody) is not some nihilistic void, but rather, a vibrantly alive overflowing presence. And in the light of this presence, everything is sacred – the ordinary is the extraordinary.
This aliveness does not hold still. A friend of mine who was a surgical nurse described the shock of interns making their first cut in a living body. They’ve studied the anatomy book, they’ve dissected the cadavers, but now they’re cutting into a living organism and suddenly everything is slippery and pulsating and moving, blood is gushing out, everything is moving. This is real life. Nothing holds still. It’s a mess. And yet right in the heart of this messy impermanence, this utterly thorough-going flux, is true stillness, order and intelligence.
“Show me the Holy Reality,” a monk once asked the Master.
“It just moved!” the Master replied.
Just as we have these seemingly contradictory teachings about the body, we also find some teachers telling us that the world is an illusion while others say that enlightenment is all about being a bodhisattva who cares deeply for the world. Again, it can seem that these are contradictory and irreconcilable teachings, but as with the apparently opposite pointers about the body, if we look more deeply, we may find that these seemingly divergent teachings about the world also point us to the very same realization, the very same reality. Ramana Maharshi expressed it beautifully when he said:
The world is illusory;
God alone is real;
God is the world.
“The world” we conceptualize, like “the body” we conceptualize, is an abstraction, an idea, a map. And the stories we tell ourselves and each other about this world are all in the end fictional. But when we discover God (boundlessness, seamlessness, emptiness, the aliveness or suchness of Here and Now), we discover the reality of the world.
When we truly see that all of our choices, decisions, preferences, intentions, interests, inclinations, thoughts and actions come from emptiness, that every action arises from the Totality and not from “me,” the phantom operator, and that this is true of everyone else as well, then we are instantly free of guilt and blame, vengeance and retribution. This is true compassion. It doesn’t mean we approve of genocide, or that we allow child molesters to run free, but we see that those who commit such atrocities could not have done otherwise in that moment. We have compassion for them. We see that every action arises out of an infinite web of nature and nurture---genetics, hormones, neurology and conditioning. Hitler could not have “chosen” to be Ramana Maharshi anymore than Ramana could have “chosen” to be Hitler. What we call “Hitler” or “Ramana” or “me” or “you” is not really a solid thing with some kind of independent will, but rather, a boundless process that is inseparable from everything else in the entire universe. We are not encapsulated inside a body as we had imagined, and as it turns out, seeing this doesn’t in any way deny the actuality of the body either. If anything, we become infinitely more sensitive to the reality of both the body and the world. We see that it is the whole universe breathing, thinking, singing, dancing, sensing, awaring, body-ing, world-ing, being.
“You are not your body” points to the realization that “you” and “your body,” as you think of them, are nothing but ideas. It doesn’t point to denying or ignoring the body, or to some kind of mystical disappearance into thin air. Likewise, saying that “the world is a dream” points to the realization that “the world” as we think of it (a solid objective reality “out there” apart from us) is a dream-like illusion, a conceptualization, a kind of mirage. It doesn’t mean there is no world in any sense.
If we zoom far enough out, this planet is nothing but a tiny dot of light, and finally, if we go out far enough, it disappears completely. If we zoom in close enough, at the subatomic level, we find mostly empty space and nothing solid. Either way, zoomed in or zoomed out, the world as we know it with all our personal and global dramas is no longer here.
Sensory experiencing, the body, the world, and the entire movie of waking life are sometimes seen as a kind of veil that hides or obscures Ultimate Reality, and then there is an attempt to detach and transcend, to see that nothing perceivable or conceivable can be what I am. But ultimately, this detachment collapses into unconditional love. It is seen that sensory experiencing, the body, the world, the characters and the entire movie of waking life are all the perfect manifestation and expression of Ultimate Reality, that everything is one seamless whole from which nothing stands apart, and from which no detachment is ever possible. There is always only the Single Reality, the no-thing-ness appearing as everything.
Both zooming out and zooming in can be powerful ways of waking up. Advaita teachings often emphasize zooming out. They direct you to what is beyond everything perceivable and conceivable, encouraging you to discover that what you truly are is prior to the world and the body. You are the screen that is present before and after the movie, that is equally present in every scene of the movie, and that is never disturbed by the movie. You are boundless awareness. And in the most radical of nondual teachings, awareness itself is seen as the first appearance, and you are that which is prior to awareness, that which is both awareness and the content of awareness. Many other teachings, such as Zen, tend to begin by frustrating all your attempts to zoom out. You come to the Zen Master to find Ultimate Reality and enlightenment, and to your great consternation, all the Master ever does is give meticulous instructions for cleaning the toilet and sweeping the floor! Finally, you realize that Ultimate Reality is not someplace else. I have found all of these approaches potentially eye-opening. They can all reveal that what you are seeking has never been absent and can never be lost.
It is wonderfully liberating to see that nothing in the movie of waking life really matters. And at the same time, I've found that one of the very best and most reliable ways of discovering insubstantiality, boundlessness and the absence of separation firsthand, is to give close and careful attention here and now to the bare sensory actuality of the present moment. By giving careful attention to the form of this moment, we discover formlessness or emptiness. We discover that nothing holds still. And yet, we find that there is a great stillness beholding everything and at the very heart of everything.
The danger I see in trying to transcend the body or deny the world from an ideological place, rather than through direct experience, is that we can end up cultivating a kind of dissociated detachment. We keep trying to imagine or picture “formless nothingness” or “the screen” (as if this were some thing). The mind creates a subtle new object that doesn’t really exist, and then it takes effort to keep this imaginary creation always in mind, to keep remembering that I am formless nothingness and not the person, the screen and not the movie. We fall into an inner conflict, attracted by the movie and at the same time trying to turn away and detach from it. This is why I’ve often found it more reliable to go directly into the apparent forms, such as the body, and see what is revealed.
Instead of trying to ignore the world of form (the body and the world), go into it deeply with awareness, and discover for yourself how fluid and ephemeral and empty of self it all actually is. Discover the boundlessness of every moment, the boundlessness of presence. Discover that true happiness, beauty, joy, and freedom is not in any particular form, but rather in the awareness or presence at the heart of everything. Happiness is then no longer dependent upon getting the perfect lover, or the perfect location, or the perfect scenery, or the perfect job. It is about recognizing true perfection here and now. And in this realization of fluidity and wholeness, our grip on all our most cherished beliefs and ideas relaxes, along with our need to defend “me” and “my” side. We may still have strong opinions, but we become more open to questioning them, more able to see and consider other points of view, less caught up in “being right” and “winning” and “getting even.” More and more, we can enjoy the actual messiness of life as it is. Our ideals for how everything “should” be are like the anatomy book or the cadaver -- dead. However hard we try, the living body will never be “perfect” like that, and actually, that’s wonderful!
This alive and wondrous and utterly ungraspable IS-ness is true freedom. It is not the freedom to do what you want, but rather, the freedom to be what you are. What are you? Nobody at all, everything and nothing, and at the same time, a particular snowflake unlike any other. The whole universe is showing up as you, as this moment, just as it is.
The exploration and freedom and aliveness that is being pointed to here is all about the utter simplicity of being. Hearing the traffic sounds or the wind or the birds, feeling the breathing, seeing colors and shapes, sensations of cool air or heat, thoughts bubbling up and vanishing into thin air -- just this, nothing more and nothing less. In this simple beingness, there is no “you” and no “body” and no “world” and no “problem to solve” until thinking begins labeling the sensations and telling a story. And that story is only another momentary shape that emptiness is taking, just like the bird songs and the traffic roar. This present moment is alive with color and smell and taste and touch and sound – it simply isn’t anything you can grasp.
“Boundlessness” is a word that points to the very essence or nature of Here and Now, the groundless ground, the water in every wave. You cannot find what is being pointed to because nothing is outside of it. Anything you can find or define -- any sense of awareness or boundlessness, or any notion of Here and Now -- is another appearance. The boundlessness that is being and beholding everything is nothing you can see or grasp or experience or possess or pin down. You can only be this emptiness. And in fact, you cannot not be it. And whatever appears is always only this, for there is nothing else.
-- copyright Joan Tollifson 2009 --