Waking up is really about simply being alive—being alive as present experiencing, as boundless aware presence, as this whole unfathomable happening, and also as a vulnerable human being in a vast cosmos about which we know very little.
In my last post, I said that by spirituality, I didn’t mean spirit as opposed to matter, nor some kind of soul that survives death. I want to further clarify those two statements.
I’m not saying spirit doesn’t exist. I just don’t see it as something other than so-called matter, which, upon close examination, turns out to be mostly empty space, and which can mysteriously show up as either waves or particles. In my view, spirit and matter are different words for, or different ways of seeing, the same thing.
When we tune into the bare happening of present experiencing (sensing, perceiving, awaring, thinking), we find that it is multidimensional and always here-now, and that it is at once infinitely diverse and seamlessly whole. It can certainly include the sense of being vibrant empty space or pure consciousness, prior to name and form, and some might call this spirit. But it’s not “my” spirit, for it is edgeless and limitless, with no inside or outside, and it includes the whole universe. This boundless aware presence (the knowingness of being here now, not as Joan, but as awareness itself) has sometimes been called the Ultimate Subject and is often compared to an empty mirror, a cloudless sky, the unchanging screen on which the movie plays, or the water in the ocean endlessly waving. This aware presence is ever-present, but often goes unnoticed because attention is so completely absorbed in the storylines of the movie and the identification with the main character, “me.” Recognizing this vast, space-like awareness and this indivisible presence helps to free us from painful storylines and the thought-sense of being a separate, encapsulated self, and that can be very liberating.
But too often this gets turned into a metaphysical Truth or belief about the nature of reality (that “everything is pure consciousness” and “I am not the body”), or it becomes a new task that the “me” needs to do (identifying as awareness and not as a person), or it becomes a new duality, because words seem to divide what is actually indivisible. In the immediacy of direct experiencing, hearing the caw-caw-caw of a crow, there is no boundary or separation between awareness and content, observer and observed, screen and movie, ocean and wave, formlessness and form. There’s just caw-caw-caw.
As for the notion of a soul that survives death, I may be overlooking something, but I haven’t found any cohesive self or soul somewhere inside this body. Such an entity can be imagined, but in my experience, present experiencing / aware presence has no center. And I don’t have the sense that we are each a totally independent unit of consciousness or an encapsulated package of information that continues intact from one lifetime to the next.
However, I’m not saying everything ends at death. I regard birth and death as arbitrary dividing lines in a seamless happening. My sense is that consciousness is not walled off or encapsulated. As I see it, each individual being is like a wave. It isn’t walled off or separate from the other waves, and when a wave subsides back into the ocean, it doesn’t reincarnate intact as a new wave. It is never anything but water and an ever-changing movement of the ocean. So I don’t see death as The End of the ocean, but only as the end of a particular unique waving. I don’t expect to be conscious, as Joan, after my heart stops beating and my brain stops functioning. Maybe I will be surprised, after all, no one really knows.
But importantly, my focus in spirituality is not on speculating about the afterlife. It is on this life, and this one bottomless moment, right here, right now. That’s actually all there ever really is. There truly is nothing after (or before) the timeless present-ness of now, and there is truly nothing outside the ever-present immediacy of here. All times and locations, all of time and space, show up here-now. Birth-death is happening every moment, and yet all the ceaseless movement and change never departs from this ever-present, utterly immediate, infinite and eternal no-thing-ness showing up as everything. We can call this consciousness or presence or here-now or primordial awareness or the Tao or spirit or the universe or unicity or present experiencing or whatever we want to call it. But no words or concepts can ever capture the simple actuality of caw-caw-caw.
As for Joan, the name makes her seem like a solid, persisting, discrete, locatable thing—a noun—the main character in The Story of Joan’s Life. But in actuality, “Joan” is an ever-changing, pulsating, vibrating dance of sensations, perceptions, thoughts, actions, ideas, impulses, urges, desires…cells dividing, being born and dying…heart beating, blood circulating, food digesting, air coming in and going out…interactions with other people, with ideas, with animals and plants, with the ground and the air and the sunlight…definitely a verb, not a noun…a waving of the ocean, inseparable from the other waves, cresting and then dissolving back into the ocean, which is all she ever was.
From my book DEATH: The End of Self-Improvement:
Am I saying that nothing survives death? Actually, I’m suggesting that there are no separate and persisting “things” to begin with, either to be born or to die. All apparent forms—people, tables, chairs, atoms, quarks, planets, dogs, cats, consciousness, energy—are mental concepts reified and abstracted out of a seamless and boundless actuality that does not begin or end, for it is ever-present Here-Now. And whatever this boundless actuality is, it seems to have infinite viewpoints from which it can be seen, and infinite layers of density, from the most apparently solid to the most ephemeral and subtle. Ultimately, there is no way to say what this indivisible wholeness is. No label, concept or formulation—whether scientific or metaphysical—can capture the living actuality.
No one knows for sure what happens after death, and I may be surprised; but I assume that dying will be just like going to sleep or going under anesthesia. Conscious experiencing—my movie of waking life and the experience of being present—will vanish as it does every night in deep sleep or under anesthesia. And, as in deep sleep, I won’t be there to miss myself or my movie of waking life. The fear of dying only exists during waking life, and only as a fearful idea. In deep sleep, the problem—and the one who seems to have it—no longer exist.
The more closely we explore this whole compelling appearance that I call the movie of waking life, the more we find that it has no more substance or enduring reality than a passing dream. We might think of it as a play of the universe, a dance of consciousness, a marvelous and deep entertainment, with no meaning or purpose except to play, to dance, to enjoy and explore and express itself, and then, to dissolve—back into that unfathomable mystery prior to consciousness, subtler than space, in which nothing perceivable or conceivable remains.
In my view, what happens after death is a flat earth question. Worrying about what happens to us when we die is like worrying about what happens to us if we fall off the edge of the earth. People used to worry about that, but their fear was based on a misunderstanding. Just as there is no edge to the earth, there is no actual boundary, no edge where life begins or ends. The things we are worrying about are all conceptual abstractions, artificially pulled out of the whole. Like the lines on a map dividing up the whole earth, birth and death are artificial dividing lines on an indivisible reality.
Just as no wave is ever really fixed in any permanent form or separate from the ocean, no person is ever actually a fixed or solid “thing” separate from the totality. This unbroken wholeness or unicity is ever-present as the still-point of Here-Now, and ever-changing as the thorough-going flux and impermanence of experience. This wholeness cannot be found or lost because it is all there is, and there is nothing and nowhere that is not it. Nothing stands apart from it to “get it” or “lose it,” and it never departs from itself. Stillness and movement, immutability and impermanence, mind and matter, are simply different ways of seeing and describing this indivisible actuality.
Of course, there’s no denying the everyday reality of death. Every living being is a unique and precious expression of the universe, a unique point of view, a unique and unrepeatable pattern of energy. When someone we love dies, they are gone, never to return, and one day, this life we are experiencing right now will end. In so many ways, death is the greatest wake-up call there is…
When the future disappears, we are brought home to the immediacy that we may have avoided all our lives—the vibrant aliveness Here-Now, the only place where we ever actually are. Whether it is the personal death that awaits each of us, or the inevitable planetary death in which the earth itself will be no more, or even the end of the entire known universe, death is the single reality that most clearly informs us that the future is a fantasy and that the person and the world and everything that we have been so concerned about are all fleeting bubbles in a stream.
When we believe that a single, fragile, vulnerable, impermanent bubble is all we are, we live in fear of death. And yet, paradoxically, at the same time, we long to pop the bubble of apparent encapsulation and limitation and dissolve into the vast, unlimited wholeness that we seem to have lost, the no-thing-ness where all our problems and concerns vanish into thin air.
We all know, intuitively, that this bubble is not all we are, nor are we some kind of lost soul trapped inside it. The wholeness we long for is actually all there is. The bubble has never been a solid, separate, independent, unchanging thing. By embracing the actuality of life just as it is, something shifts. And surprisingly, the more closely we tune into the bare actuality, the less substantial it seems, and the more mysterious, unresolvable and extraordinary it reveals itself to be. Pain, whether physical or emotional, becomes more interesting and less frightening, and even if fear arises, that too becomes interesting rather than fearful. Everything reveals the jewel in ever-new ways.
--from my book DEATH: The End of Self-Improvement
Sometimes I find myself whirling in the whirlwind of the world—fighting battles that seem very important. In that realm of this and that, no one agrees with me about everything, and some people disagree with me about almost everything. In that dimension of reality, I always feel in some way alone and separate and filled with the pain and frustration of things not going as I think they should, and of so many people not seeing what I see as I see it. In human beings like myself, this can trigger rage, fear, despair, anxiety, depression, hopelessness, bitterness, and a desire to escape, sometimes into transcendent forms of spirituality.
Maybe you know this whirlwind, this storm, these feelings of resistance, isolation and heartbreak. Absorbing all the pain in the world—the immense and unfathomable cruelty and suffering, the misunderstandings, the conflicts, the seemingly unbearable sorrow. And perhaps also noticing all the ways we add to the misery and make it worse.
Conflict and angst reinforce the sense of being a separate, vulnerable, endangered person in a very threatening world—and that vulnerability is a very real aspect of life that I don’t advocate denying or ignoring, as many spiritual teachings try to do. The body isn’t all I am, and “the body” is not the solid independent “thing” we imagine it to be, but I would never say, “I am not the body.” And dismissing the world as nothing more than an illusion that is best ignored feels no better to me than being totally tossed about by the drama.
Sometimes in the midst of a whirlwind, the clouds part, and there is a shift, a relaxing into something more expansive and open—the eye of the storm or the boundlessness in which the storm is but a tiny passing event. And suddenly there is peace. Not a peace that turns away from the world, but a peace that beholds it all with a kind of equanimity.
And here in this simple presence, there may be the recognition that both the storm and the eye of the storm are aspects of a single indivisible reality, and whether there is contraction or expansion, turmoil or relaxation, none of it is personal—all of it is simply passing weather, the result of infinite causes and conditions. There is actually no “me” who gets lost in a whirlwind, or who somehow has to do relaxing or find equanimity, or who goes back and forth between stormy seas and calm seas. That “me” is only an intermittent thought-story-sensation, a kind of mirage, a momentary appearance. There is actually always only the ocean, doing its dance. Birth and death, calm seas and stormy ones, bubbles forming and popping. Just this. Right here, right now. Caw-caw-caw. Simple, simple, simple. If it feels complicated, the thinking mind is at work. But just this (what is, as it is) is effortless and unavoidable. And somehow, it all belongs, it’s all included, and it can’t ever be pulled apart or pinned down.
What Have I Been Reading Lately?
Secret Power: Wikileaks and Its Enemies by Stefania Maurizi
Material Girls: Why Reality Matters for Feminism by Kathleen Stock
Useful Idiots, The Chris Hedges Report, The Free Press, and others on Substack
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Really enjoying your posts here on Substack and very much appreciate their frequency. Thank you 🙏
Your writings have the power to bring me to the present moment as no other! So simple! So strong! So whole! So peaceful! Thank you!