There’s No Way Out of Totality

by Joan Tollifson

no way outWhen we look into a mirror, we see a reflection — an image, shapes and colors, a visual sensation―and we say, “That’s me.” But what we don’t see is the seeing. We don’t see awareness. We mistake an image or a sensation for what we are, and we overlook the boundless awareness or the presence in which it all appears.

When you look across the room and see somebody else, you say, “I see Lucy.” But again, you’re seeing an image―shapes and colors. You aren’t seeing the seeing that is seeing you. What you see and identify as “Lucy” is nothing but an image, a shape, a sensation, along with an overlay of memories and ideas and stories that you have about “Lucy.”

In a sense, we could say that looking at the world is like looking in a mirror. Everything you see―the whole world―is a reflection of you. But you can’t ever see the seeing. You can only see the reflections, and like the stars in the night sky, by the time they register, they are images from the past. The seeing―the present moment―is invisible. It is too close, too immediate, too all-inclusive to be seen.

Much of what we call spirituality or religion is engaged in trying to perfect the character in the movie by changing the story and trying to improve the outcome. Then there are more “advanced” kinds of spirituality where we are trying to wake up from the movie and identify as the screen. And of course, this is a whole new movie about “me” becoming the screen. It’s another version of trying to perfect the character and change the story. There’s still the mirage of an imaginary someone who hopes to be pure awareness and not Joe Blow.

There are many shifts that occur in the movie of waking life. If you drink a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, there is a shift. If a car almost hits your car and adrenalin floods your system, there is a shift. If you are a teenager with raging hormones, or a woman who is premenstrual or menopausal, there are many shifts. If your blood sugar drops, there is a shift. If the sun comes out on a cloudy day, there is a shift. The primary, root illusion is that there is someone who “has” these shifts, that there is something that is shifting.

The appearance can only appear in contrasts and polarities. Our suffering is wanting up without down, searching for perpetual sunshine. But if there were perpetual expansion or perpetual pleasure, it would no longer be pleasure. If there were an orgasm that went on forever it would quickly turn to suffering, like those six hour erections they warn you about in the television commercials for those erectile dysfunction drugs. If you had to eat chocolate cake for 24 hours straight, what was pleasurable for five minutes would turn to tremendous suffering in the space of an hour. There’s no such thing as continuous pleasure and it wouldn’t be pleasurable if there were.

The flower opens and then it closes. We enjoy curling up and hiding under the covers. Sometimes we want to close and sometimes we want to open. We enjoy movies. They’re fun, they’re entertaining, they can even be enlightening. Sometimes we want to lose ourselves in a story. There is no such thing as perpetual expansion or constant mindfulness. And any experience of expansion is always part of the dream-like movie of waking life, the world of reflections and appearances. When we really see that nothing is solid or fixed, that it’s all empty, that unicity is all there is, then we’re not at war with life anymore. We’re not trying to be awake “all the time.” But anywhere you look for this discovery is too far away. Anything you do to achieve it is too much and too late. It’s much closer than that.

P: I believe that there is a shift, or a letting go, or an acceptance that matters. In fact, it makes all the difference in the world. You’ve said so yourself. When we resist what’s here, then we have moved out of alignment with all that is, and we suffer. It seems to me that spirituality and religion are about moving back into alignment.
J: Yes, in a sense that’s all very true. But now I’m pointing to that same truth in a different way. Only in the movie, relatively speaking, can you apparently go in and out of alignment with something else. To be in or out of alignment there needs to be two. For unicity, the question of alignment makes no sense, for there is nothing outside of unicity.

P: So are you saying that we never really are out of alignment?
J: The one who could be in or out of alignment is a mirage. Relatively speaking, in the movie of waking life, your vertebrae can be out of alignment, or the brakes in your car can be out of alignment, or “you” can be lost in stories-second-guessing yourself, hesitating, resisting, being angry or defensive or whatever —and you can think of that as “you” being out of alignment with unicity. But nothing exists outside unicity, and nothing can ever really be out of alignment with what is. Any relative “out of alignment” that exists in the movie is in perfect alignment in Reality. Even the apparent mistakes are part of a larger perfection, and all of it is only an appearance. In deep sleep, the whole universe disappears.

P: If everything’s truth, then what do you need meetings like this for?
J: These meetings are truly useless. Use implies two. Relatively speaking, I can use a hammer to drive a nail into a board. But the driver, the hammer, the nail, the board, and the driving are all one whole undivided being, one inseparable flow—call it whatever you want. The boundary lines are notional. Boundlessness is all there is, in spite of whatever hammering and manipulating occurs, never because of it. You cannot become what you always already are.

P: But if that’s not seen, then there is fear, anger, suffering.
J: Yes, and on a global scale, in the dream, that could snowball into a war or genocide or any number of horrific nightmares. But that too is simply boundlessness appearing as war and genocide.

P: Why is it okay to be in suffering? Why is that okay?
J: I’m not saying anything is okay or not okay, only that there is suffering, and only in the dream-like appearance.

P: And there’s no way out of that?
J: The way out and the one who needs a way out exist only in the dream. The whole problem of being stuck is imaginary. It’s like at night, you dream that you and five other people are being chased by a tiger. You are terrified. In the morning, you wake up. Are you still worried about the fate of the other five people and whether they are safe?
You’re hoping for a way out, but there isn’t a way out. In the dream, the tiger seems real, and in the dream, you run like hell, and you are terrified. It’s unavoidable. It’s the cosmic fun. But it’s not really happening except as a dream event, and there is no one who can actually die or be eaten. Not ever. You wake up and see that you were never in any real danger. The tiger, the others, it was all a dream. But still, you can’t avoid dreaming.
In the movie of waking life, there are genocides, cancers, ice ages, shipwrecks, hurricanes, wars, plagues, all manner of death and destruction, but unicity is never harmed. The forms break down, but emptiness is unharmed. What we truly are is never born and never dies. Seeing this is liberation. But unicity includes the nightmare of bondage as well as the dream of liberation. You cannot escape or control the dream world. But when you see that there is no need to escape or control, that nothing real is happening, then you relax. And if you don’t relax, then you tense up. It doesn’t matter either way. Unicity includes every possibility. And in the end, it’s all a dream.

P: I think there are dream characters that are animated by an awakeness, and I think there are other characters that are more caught.
J: In the dream, there are relative differences among characters, and these differences matter relatively, in the movie. But every night in deep sleep, the whole dream world vanishes into thin air. We can discuss the differences in dream characters, but it makes no difference. It’s all like a dream. It vanishes into thin air. I’m pointing to what is prior to the dream, what is Here/Now.

 P: Don’t you suffer less when you’re less identified with the character?
J: What is this “you” who imagines being more or less identified or suffering more or less? That imaginary you is the mirage.

P: Why are we trying to wake up?
J: Because we’re dreaming that we are asleep. It’s entertainment in the dream. The “Trying to Wake Up” dream.

P: Well, it’s kind of a pain in the neck actually—
J: Yes, it can be.

P: But I’ve gotten to this point where I can’t seem to go back to whatever I was before.
J: That’s all in the dream. You have always been Here/Now.

P: It’s not a comfortable place that I’m in.
J: You’re not in any place. All places appear in you. All places appear Here/Now. And they are all appearances in a dream.

Another P: I was praying for my son once when he had a medical problem and all of a sudden I knew he was fine —and he was. So what.
J: Yes.

P: So it wouldn’t have mattered what I did?
J: We can say everything you did mattered absolutely because you couldn’t have done anything else. In the dream world, everything is the cause and the effect of everything else. Everything matters absolutely or nothing matters at all— you can say it either way. What does it mean, “mattering”? It seems to mean something about whether something was important or necessary or essential in some way. The whole universe was essential for your son’s recovery. If one tiny dust mote had been different, everything would have been different. The whole idea of cause and effect is a conceptual overlay, a way of thinking about things. We try to isolate out one thing and say that it “caused” some other thing, but everything is one seamless whole without division. Only in thought can we seemingly tease it apart and then think that one imaginary thing caused another imaginary thing. Only in thought can we think that maybe the prayer caused the recovery. Actually, they are one whole happening —the illness, the prayer, the recovery, and everything else in the whole universe.

P: Our whole family prays to God. And then one day, I thought, I am God. There is no God out there. Adyashanti said that you could pray to the Coke can and the same thing would happen.
J: As far as I’m concerned, God is another word for the groundlessness of being. God is the true “I” to which we all refer when we say “I am.” “I am God” is megalomania and delusion if the “I” refers to me, Jane Doe. But “I am God” is the deepest truth when “I” refers to the boundless awareness being and beholding everything. Here/Now, there is no “me,” only God, this undivided aliveness [Joan gestures to include everything] that no word can ever represent or contain. Everything is God and God is everything. God is the unconditional love that allows everything to be as it is, including all the changes and the desire for change.

P: It was much easier to have a God I could pray to and have him fix things for me.
J: Well, you can still pray to God―you’re just praying to yourself.

P: Praying to myself is nuts.
J: Maybe not. In a sense, every conversation you have is a conversation with yourself. This meeting is a meeting with yourself. You are meeting yourself as everyone in this room and as the bird songs and the cicadas and the traffic noise. You are always meeting yourself everywhere. So maybe prayer is simply a way of listening to yourself and hearing yourself, much like writing a book or giving a talk. I am always talking to myself and listening to myself.

P: I feel this fear whenever I get close to dissolving into boundlessness.
J: There is no one to dissolve. There is only boundlessness. Even this fear is nothing but boundlessness appearing as fear. When we imagine that we are the bodymind, then we are terrified of nothingness, terrified to I be nobody, terrified of the void, terrified of death―but only when we think about these things and imagine them do we feel terrified. Every night we fall willingly and happily into this nothingness, and there is no one left to be afraid.

Joan Tollifson has an affinity with Buddhism, Advaita, and radical nonduality, but she belongs to no tradition. She is the author of two previous books, Awake in the Heartland and Bare-Bones Meditation.

From Painting the Sidewalk with water. Copyright 2010 by Joan Tollifson. Reprinted by arrangement with Non-Duality Press, Salisbury, United Kingdom.

Buy this book from