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Joan Tollifson
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How Do Various Teachers, Speakers, Teachings or Messages Affect Me?

Facebook posting 11-13-2020

This is a wonderful question to live with as you read, listen to, or work with various folks who are writing or talking about nonduality, awareness, meditation, spirituality, or however they describe it.

  • Do they point you to right here, right now, just as it is?
  • Do you come away feeling that you lack something, that there’s something more to get, that they have something you don’t, that you need to go back to them again to really “get it”?
  • Do they speak from presence and their own direct seeing, or do they seem to be coming from an intellectual place or from beliefs? Does listening to them evoke open presence in you, or does it get you entangled in thoughts?
  • Do you feel relaxed, awake and relieved of seeking in their presence, or do you feel more and more entangled in mental confusion and wanting something you think is missing?
  • Do they make themselves seem special or different? Do they tell you their awakening story, or do they emphasize the awakeness that is right here, belonging to no one?
  • Do they speak to you with humility, as a fellow-explorer, or do they speak as your superior in some way, as the Master, the One in the Know, the one with all the answers, the Authority, the Enlightened One?
  • Are you free to question what they say?
  • Can you interact with them “off-stage” as regular human beings, or do you only get to meet them in a very controlled setting, when they are “on stage” being the teacher?
  • Do they reveal and share their human side (their own shortcomings, doubts, uncertainties, mistakes, or whatever it might be), or do they come off as beyond it all and perfect?
  • Do they speak with certainty about metaphysical things that may actually exceed the epistemological limits of a human being? Do they claim to know how the whole universe works? Do they admit to uncertainty? Are they open to seeing things they hadn’t seen before, to changing their minds?
  • Are they pushing beliefs, conclusions and answers, or are they inviting a kind of ever-fresh, open exploration and discovery, not knowing what will be discovered?
  • Do you feel like you’re exploring together with them, that you’re looking and listening and wondering together in a shared way, as friends, or are they the one in the know and you’re following them?
  • Do they challenge you at times, push you, maybe even upset you? And if so, is it in a way you ultimately appreciate as being helpful, or is it in a way that feels abusive and demeaning?
  • What do you feel they want from you if anything? Is there a whole system they want you to sign up for, an organization they want you to join? If there is an organization or different events or programs being offered, do you feel like you need these to get somewhere better, or are they being offered in a different spirit, as simply ways to continue exploring and clarifying?

In one sense, there is no path to Here-Now because we are always already here. And there is no awakening in that sense because we are already awake. But we don’t always recognize that. Fully realizing that (making it real), waking up to where we are, sobering up from the search for a better tomorrow and a better “me,” waking up from the hypnotic trance of our stories and ideas, discerning the difference between the map and the territory (between conceptual formulation and direct experiencing)—this is an unfolding process without end. Teachers can be very helpful in this process—they have been for me and sometimes still are. It’s healthy to acknowledge what we don’t know or haven’t yet fully realized, and to admit that someone else may be “farther along” on the pathless path in that sense, and thus able to help us. There’s no shame in getting help, and false egalitarianism is just as pernicious as authoritarianism.

These questions I’ve posed aren’t intending to suggest that everyone is equally clear or equally free from confusion and delusion, or that you should walk away prematurely and settle for a life of confusion and misery because you’ve bought into the IDEA that you “shouldn’t” want anything different. The longing to wake up comes from the deepest place in us. But it often gets hijacked by the ego and side-tracked into a search for exotic experiences, final understandings, a perfect personality, a pain-free life, or freedom from any kind of uncertainty.

These questions are intended to invite us all to question the ways we seek authority figures or parental figures, the ways we keep ourselves from standing on our own two feet and trusting our own insights, the ways we continue to search long after we have found. Many of us have a lot of self-doubt and a deep sense of lack and unworthiness, and it’s all too easy to assume that someone who sits at the front of the room and speaks with authority and certainty must be superior to us, and must know what they’re talking about. And that may not be true at all. So these questions can be helpful ones to live with as we engage with various teachers and groups. Ultimately, of course, life itself is the teacher. Every moment is the teacher.

The therapist I sobered up with back in 1973 from my near-fatal plunge into alcohol and drugs once asked me how I felt about our relationship. I told her I felt like she had all the power. "I do have all the power," she told me. "You gave it to me. You gave it to me for a purpose, and when you're ready, you'll take it back. You'll learn all my skills, and you'll be your own therapist." She believed therapy should be a relatively short-term process. You learn to stand on your own. I was with her for a year, and I did learn her skills. What she said was a beautiful description of the healthy parent/child, or teacher/student, or therapist/client relationship. These are all potentially helpful relationships, often essential ones, but it’s important that they not become a permanent dependency. The child must grow up and leave home, the client must leave therapy, and the student must leave the teacher—and that doesn’t mean that the student must never see the teacher again, or that the student might not learn something more from the teacher (or vice versa). They may still live or work together, maybe they remain friends, so the leaving isn’t always about physical distance. It’s about what the Buddha meant when he said, “Be a lamp unto yourself.” It’s about trusting your own light. Which isn’t really YOUR light; it’s simply LIGHT. No one owns it. No one is actually separate from it.

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