Joy of Unknowing

“To know that you do not know, that is true knowledge.”

~Sri Nisargadatta


Mind cannot be used to grasp mind. The more we try to grasp mind, the more we realize that we are only grasping air. Actually, if we search for the mind, we will not find any such entity. All we will find are thoughts, and even if we try and fixate on a thought, it will be like trying to hold on to smoke. In fact, if we were not so attached to the concept of linear time and could achieve a birth-to-death overview, we would recognize that our attempts to hold on to any aspect of life — relations, possessions, dreams, ideals and beliefs, and even our self-images — are just as much of a futile endeavor as attempting to grab empty space.

Based upon various conditioning factors, we tend by habit to identify with thought energy. In the process, we develop the conviction that what we think is what we are. In this way, consciousness itself can seem like a limitation, contracting down into various afflicted self-images, such as “I am not worthy, I am too fat, I am not smart enough, or rich enough, or spiritual enough”, or the opposite, such as “I am better than my peers, I am prettier than the others, I am more enlightened”, and so on ad infinitum. All such manufactured images are based on thought energy with which we identify, and which become our prison cages as we do so.

However, if we take a step back and just let thoughts come and go without attaching any personal significance to them, it becomes apparent that we are not the thoughts, but the witness of thoughts. We are not the passing traffic, but the space in which the traffic flows. This primordial space need not become anything other than itself, but simply abide as itself, regardless of the passing parade. Nor need we – we are complete just as we are, and need not be dependent on any temporary neural stream of thought energy to contract our infinite being and squeeze it into the cramped fictional narratives of “me and mine”.

Once we have been able to relax our attention to the point where we are no longer impulsively being drawn into our thought-stories, but stabilize instead in the position of pure witnessing, we can inquire even further. For instance, if we turn our attention around and try to cling to or grasp this witness, we discover that we can’t do that either, any more than we can grasp any other dreamy fabrication of consciousness. The witness cannot grasp the witness, just as the eye cannot see itself. In this direct recognition, the witness (which is still a form of mental construct) falls away too. It represents a slight grasping at an identity, a subtle obstruction.

What remains when all grasping falls away is pure aware spaciousness, the motionless timeless background. It is our true nature — prior to, during, and after thoughts, memories, sensations, perceptions, and all transient self-images arise and dissolve. It is here where we can come to rest, in this ineffable stillness. The only “inner voice” now is silence. In silence, there is no need for some conceptual understanding. Indeed, when only awareness remains, who is there left to understand? Hence, the great Korean Zen master Chinul wrote: “Simply knowing that there is nothing you need to understand is in fact seeing the [true] nature.”

Just so, trying to “figure it all out” by using the analytical intellect may earn one a philosophy credential, but that is nothing like directly seeing one’s true nature. The best service that the intellect can render is to point to who and what we are, but we must leave all notional constructs behind if we are yearning for direct recognition/realization, in the same way we can appreciate and utilize a bread recipe, but we would never confuse the recipe for the bread itself. Facts and information will never amount to true intuitive wisdom.

This why the Zen sages, among other Realizers, recommend practicing with “don’t know mind”. Of course, this does not mean that one somehow refuses to discriminate in the objective world, indulging in blatant ignorance and confusion. The intellectual faculty is an amazing tool, and completely necessary for ordinary navigation in this psycho-physical realm, but the proper utilization of “don’t know mind” reaches beyond the domain of the story-making mind. In that sense, it is not anti-conceptual but trans-conceptual.

Practicing with “don’t know mind” simply entails the recognition that no conceptual understanding, regardless of how seemingly profound, amounts to truth. Indeed, in the spiritual process of awakening, the presumption of knowledge is more often a hindrance, a superimposed fantasy of interpretation on perception and experience, and ultimately constitutes just more excess baggage one needs to discard, if they are serious about waking up. This is also why the Advaita sage Nisargadatta says:

“Everybody is trying to understand the meaning of all this. You are not understanding because you have all the swaddling clothes of “I-am-this-or-that.” Remove them. The ultimate point of view is that there is nothing to understand, so when we try to understand, we are only indulging in the acrobatics of mind.”

Nevertheless, it is not enough to merely glimpse one’s true nature. The sincere aspirant must return again and again to the depths of direct insight and recognition until the effort itself becomes spontaneous. In the process, the transformed intellect can now serve in assisting us to integrate what we have learned, to the point where we are able to fully embody the awakened vision in all the ways we live and relate.

What we may discover in this process is that it is one thing to see our true nature, but another thing altogether when it comes to applying that recognition to all the afflictive states we have become habituated to (and not just from this life, but lives reaching back beyond memory, that nevertheless still impact and even afflict us with unresolved conflicts). Buried emotional traumas and old psychological wounds need to be brought into the light of the conscious process of recognition, where they can be dissolved by the grace of our awakened regard.

Beyond this process of insight into our true nature and progressive application in every nook and cranny of our lives, is there more to be discovered? Again, Sri Nisargadatta gives us a pointed clue when he notes:

“Whatever spiritual things you aspire to know are all happening in this objective world, in the illusion; all your activities, material and spiritual, are in this illusion; all your activities. All this is happening in the objective world, all is dishonesty, there is no truth is this fraud.”

Perhaps intuited in glimpses along the way, coming to terms with the illusionary nature of all phenomena can still prove to be a challenge. Once again, ordinary knowledge can usually only muddle things, adding more complication and contradiction. The western teacher Adyashanti put it succinctly when he said, “All true knowing arises out of the unknown and is an expression of the unknown.” Certainly, we have learned by now that resort to logic and human reason will not really serve us well in this passage. Only by once again letting go and falling into the unknown can we paradoxically find our footing on this journey. Here, mystics such as St. John of the Cross suggest: Beyond human knowledge and understanding, in order to come to union with the wisdom of God, the soul has to proceed rather by unknowing than by knowing.”

Rather than being some kind of negative experience (as the intellect might perceive it), living in the unknown can provide us with an extraordinary source of freedom and happiness. To really see things as they are, to recognize phenomena as empty of all solidity and yet luminous in its fragile beauty, is actually enormously blissful and satisfying. Really, to play in the dream, having recognized it as a dream, is true enjoyment! The magnificent medieval ecstatic Blessed Angela of Foligno expressed it perfectly when she wrote: “The joy of the saints is a joy of incomprehension; they understand that they cannot understand.”

Stabilizing in such a liberating attitude, our entire life and being, with all its relationships and perceptions, is literally re-wired to accommodate more and more light. The potential, our potential, is limitless. This light energy is the natural inheritance we all share, but habitually tend to suppress, in favor of reliance on the duller consensus vision of the pack, which will always attribute the most import and value to the safety and security of the known. What most frightens us, it seems, is the unknown, and yet we are also a curious animal, and so there will always be those among us willing to take that step out of the crowd and heads off into the rare atmosphere, on pilgrimage to parts unknown. As it so happens, those may very well be the parts that reveal our true nature and condition, in all of its incomprehensible majesty.


 Dizang asked, “Where do you go?”

Fayan replied, “I’m on a pilgrimage.”

Dizang said, “What is the point of your pilgrimage?”

Fayan said, “Don’t know.”

Dizang said, “Not knowing is the most intimate.”

~Record of Fayan Wenyi


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Pain and Spiritual Practice

“Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.”

~Natalie Sudman

A common inquiry of spiritual aspirants revolves around the challenging matter of dealing with pain. Frequent comments on the issue include complaints that physical pain somehow interferes with the ability to meditate, or to pursue the prescribed activities and rituals that are presumed to constitute spiritual practice. The assumption is that, unless one is able to experience a state of physical well-being, their capacity to pursue spiritual goals will be impeded. Moreover, this attitude is sometimes reinforced by various teachers who emphasize the requirement of cultivating a healthy body prior to taking on various disciplines, if one is going to be able to practice properly and effectively.

The problem with such an attitude is that it separates so-called spiritual practice from life itself. Life rarely grants an ideal circumstance with which to pursue one’s aims, and in fact, more often than not will present tests that challenge us in various ways. Some of these tests are physical, and include varying degrees of bodily pain. The test is not about how to get over the pain so that we can start living, but to present us with a choice: can we appreciate our life, regardless of how it seems to be going, and perhaps learn to utilize the pain to transcend our previous dualistic conceptions about life and spiritual efforts, or will we collapse in defeat, bemoan our fate, and assume the role of victim?

In order for spirituality to be truly useful, it needs to be anchored in the very place and circumstance in which we find ourselves. If we imagine that we need to travel through India and become an accomplished yogi at the feet of some guru, or enter a Japanese Zen monastery and live on brown rice and daikon radishes in order to achieve some spiritual ideal, then we are living in a kind of fantasy land, and a dated one at that.

In reality, when we are involved in some athletic activity, then athletics is the practice. When we are doing the dishes, then doing dishes is the practice. When we are experiencing pain, then pain is the practice. We don’t need to try to meditate around or through the pain — the pain itself is the meditation, the ashram, the temple, the zendo.

True meditation is not an escape strategy, but a matter of clear recognition. Recognition of what? Recognition of what is. Recognition of this that we are. It is not a scheme or technique to become someone else, some glorified and holy version of ourselves. It is just about being ourselves, right where we are, and hence it involves seeing through and releasing all the fabricated images and masks which we have taken to be ourselves. In many ways, it is an exercise in disappointment — disappointment to the ambition of the ego-mind.

In his masterpiece, “Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism”, Chogyam Trungpa describes the real situation cogently:

All the promises we have heard are pure seduction. We expect the teachings to solve all our problems; we expect to be provided with magical means to deal with our depressions, our aggressions, our sexual hang-ups. But to our surprise we begin to realize that this is not going to happen. It is very disappointing to realize that we must work on ourselves and our suffering rather than depend upon a savior or the magical power of yogic techniques. It is disappointing to realize that we have to give up our expectations rather than build on the basis of our preconceptions.

We must allow ourselves to be disappointed, which means the surrendering of me-ness, my achievement. We would like to watch ourselves attain enlightenment, watch our disciples celebrating, worshipping, throwing flowers at us, with miracles and earthquakes occurring and gods and angels singing and so forth. This never happens. The attainment of enlightenment from ego’s point of view is extreme death, the death of self, the death of me and mine, the death of the watcher. It is the ultimate and final disappointment. Treading the spiritual path is painful. It is a constant unmasking, peeling off of layer after layer of masks. It involves insult after insult.”

Everything that comes to us in life is a gift, though it may not seem like it at the time. This is a difficult attitude to incorporate, and takes a lot of patience and insight to realize (especially when we are faced with disagreeable conditions, such as intractable pain). Many aspirants spend a lot of time running from one ashram to another, one sangha (spiritual group) to another, one teacher to another, trying to find the perfect place to practice. Consequently, they tend in that way to postpone ever actually awakening to the one and only perfect opportunity for practice — their own life, right where they are. They ignore the gifts that are unceasingly being offered to them, in order to find the gift they imagine is waiting for them somewhere else, in some other place then where they happen to be at the moment. John Lennon described this attitude perfectly when he sang: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

When confronted by great pain, it does help to first realize that everything changes. This will provide some perspective, because we know that the pain will eventually diminish. No pleasure or pain lasts forever, both are transient modifications of consciousness. Moreover, the unavoidable fact of this transiency is a very important teaching, because we can realize that no modification of consciousness has any enduring reality. This insight can then inspire us to inquire deeply into that which is actually the true reality, that which doesn’t change, even in the midst of problems and challenges — the timeless, motionless radiance of Awareness itself, our true and original nature.

In this regard, Suzuki Roshi links the truth of impermanence to the teaching of selflessness when he says:

“The basic teaching of Buddhism is the teaching of transiency, or change. That everything changes is the basic truth for each existence. No one can deny this truth, and all the teaching of Buddhism is condensed within it. This is the teaching for all of us. Wherever we go this teaching is true. This teaching is also understood as the teaching of selflessness. Because each existence is in constant change, there is no abiding self. In fact, the self-nature of each existence is nothing but change itself, the self-nature of all existence. There is no special, separate self-nature for each existence. This is also called the teaching of Nirvana. When we realize the everlasting truth of “everything changes” and find our composure within it, we find ourselves in Nirvana.”

From another perspective, we can also recognize that there are degrees or levels of pain, and so when the pain does lessen a bit from its extreme, we can find good reason for gratitude. Moreover, for any kindnesses from others that are bestowed on us in the midst of our pain, we can’t help but feel a deep appreciation. By putting our attention on the gratitude, we are able to effect a real change in attitude, and when attitude changes, experience follows suit. Fundamentally, we can begin to notice that, the more we find to be grateful about, the more we are given to be grateful about. Conversely, the more we complain, the more we are given to complain about. It’s interesting how that rule seems to play out throughout our lives.

On a personal note, my Mate has suffered as much interminable debilitating physical pain as any person I’ve encountered, having contracted Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis at the age of 9 in a most pernicious form. It has eaten away a large portion of her bones, necessitating multiple hip replacements, knee surgeries, gnarled hands, and constant agonizing spasms. Nevertheless, she is also the happiest person I have met, and that includes many so-called saints and (purportedly) advanced practitioners I have been graced to meet along the way.

She is a very committed practitioner of the principle of finding joy in the midst of hell, by first recognizing directly, over the course of years of persistent inquiry, that she is not the body or its conditions. Secondly, she can track minute changes in the body’s pain, celebrating even a little relief when the pain diminishes somewhat. Thirdly, she uses the pain experience to develop deeper and deeper compassion for all suffering sentience, and in that way is able to recognize more and more that all of us are not separate, that one person’s joys and sorrows are everyone’s joys and sorrows, and in that light, her experiences become more universal than personal.

The wonderful Tibetan Buddhist Teacher, Garchen Rinpoche, who spent years imprisoned by the Chinese, speaks about this transformation in attitude quite eloquently:

“The main practice I did in prison was tong-len. Khenpo Munsel gave me many special oral instructions on tong-len that weren’t in the text. In tong-len, generally, we say that we are sending happiness out to others and taking others’ suffering in. But for the actual meaning of tong-len, you have to understand the inseparability of self and other. The ground of our minds is the same. We understand this from the View. In this context, even if there are many different types of suffering, there is really only one thing called “suffering”. There is only one suffering, he taught.

If there is really only one suffering, then at this time when you, yourself, have great suffering, you should think, “The minds of the sentient beings of the three realms and my mind have the same ground.” However, the essence of the suffering of the sentient beings of the three realms and the essence of our own suffering is the same. If you see them to be the same, if you see them as being non-dual, and then meditate on that suffering, in the mind’s natural state, that suffering goes away. At that moment, you have been able to lessen the suffering of all sentient beings of the three realms, all at once.

The “len” of tong-len means “taking.” First, take in this way. “Tong” means “giving.” If you understand your mind’s nature, then you recognize the essence of whatever suffering and afflictive emotions there may be to be emptiness. When suffering does not harm you anymore, the mind has great bliss. If at that time, you meditate, making self and others inseparable, then that bliss can diminish the self-grasping of all sentient beings. It can lessen the self-grasping. The happiness that is being given is the bliss that comes from the practice of giving and taking. This is how you should practice. This is very special.”

There is no question that prolonged and intense physical hardship presents a daunting challenge, but if we are able to inquire in the midst of it all, we will eventually be very thankful for having stayed the course, because true enlightenment is earned by throwing ourselves fully into the trenches, not by floating above them in some detached concept of meditative emptiness.

May we all find the grace to make the best use of the opportunity of pain when it comes our way!


pain brain


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We each possess our very own custom-built raft. It’s that special vehicle we hope and believe will carry us across the ocean of our life to the “other shore”, a grace-filled place which we imagine will be different than where we are now — happier, more elegant, enlightened, and desirable, and certainly comfortably free from the pests, impediments, and tribulations which seem to constitute so much of our current circumstance.

Some rafts are material – an attractive and well-nourished physical form, a hefty bank account, the mini-mansion in the right neighborhood and a summer home out at the shore, several well-appointed automobiles, an exotic travelogue, a big screen tv in every room with 1000 satellite channels, an enviable collection of enviable collectibles, and plenty of bling to flash around and confirm that one’s raft is all about travelling in style.

Other rafts are relational – that promising new date or mate, those intimate friends with their own stylish rafts, or the cozy familial arrangement which promises to satisfy that ancient genetic mandate.

Some are political – the call of the herd, the song of the tribe, the nationalistic anthem, and jihad on all infidel rafts (be they Republicans, Democrats, Communists, Capitalists, Socialists, Greenies, Monarchists, Theocrats, or some modified version of any of the above rafting positions).

Other rafts are religious/spiritual – the deified redeemer raft, that promising new guru, pastor, master, or prophet, the potent meditation technique everyone’s talking about, the authoritative doctrinal belief, special mantra, perfect posture, secret initiation, hoped-for vision, kundalini shakitpat, or unexcelled Dharma teaching.

Regardless of their particular idiosyncratic quality, all of our rafts have one thing in common: they are assembled of the same materials and ingredients – hope and fear. Hope and fear are both mental projections about what’s to come, and being dependent on future outcomes (and past regrets), both preclude being present right here and now. Both hope and fear represent an avoidance of uncertainty, and yet the Unknown is actually our true home, if we really are serious about freedom.

Liberating ourselves from distracting concerns about success or failure, we become available, and much better able to focus our attention and intention on the present moment with clarity and freshness. Abandoning the false urgency that’s spawned by hope and fear, we can relax and enjoy the rare virtue of patience – at peace with our circumstance, and capable of true listening, listening to ourselves, our relations, and to the whole universe, just as it is.

Does this mean we should discard any raft, any means, regardless of how expedient, that could serve us along the way? Certainly not – any vehicle which we might make temporary use of merely needs to be seen for what it is, with right discernment. Recognizing it in this manner, and also keeping in mind that we are not the raft, we can freely employ it as immediate circumstances may require, but we don’t need to tote it around on our back for the rest of our lives. Once it has served its purpose, it can be discarded, in the same way we would discard a thorn which we have used to remove another thorn.

A problem arises, however, when we are unwilling to let go of the raft, even if it is no longer serving us. We tend to cling to obsolete views, preconceptions, and beliefs about ourselves and the way life should be, because they give us a feeling of safety and security. By fixating on old patterns, schemes, and escape plans, we invariably stagnate. Only by our seeing through and letting go of all habitual reactivity and conditional strategies, does the Real have a chance to emerge from the background and reveal itself to us.

Nor is “It” on the other shore, awaiting us in some idealized future. This is the other shore, there is no other shore than this. This is the place right here and now where all of our rafts have delivered us, and so this is where the treasure awaits, this where we can awaken, and this is where we can let go and relax into the native happiness and radiant shine of our own true nature – hands free to give and heart wide open to receive.


“Don’t prolong the past,

don’t invite the future,

don’t be deceived by appearances,

just dwell in present awareness.”

~Patrul Rinpoche



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Consciousness and Awareness

“Consciousness does not shine by itself. It shines by a light beyond it. The mind must learn that beyond the moving mind there is a background of awareness which does not change. The mind must come to know the true self and respect it and cease covering it up, like the moon which obscures the sun during a solar eclipse.”

~Sri Nisargadatta


The Buddha made an eminently astute observation when he noted that what we are is the result of our thinking: “As ye think, so shall you be.” Indeed, it is consciousness — the power of thought-energy – which creates everything we take to be reality. Consciousness utilizes and inhabits form to express itself, and form in this sense also includes our bodies. Consequently, taking responsibility for our thoughts is a necessary step in our being able to function effectively in this realm.

One perennial obstacle in the consideration of consciousness, however, is that the terms “consciousness” and “awareness” are often used interchangeably, resulting in a lot of ensuing confusion and misunderstanding. Many a heated debate could be avoided if the two terms were used appropriately. Essentially, consciousness can be regarded as mind with objects, whereas awareness refers to mind without objects.

In our felt experience — given that everything which we can think, feel, or know is constantly changing, appearing and disappearing — clinging to and fixating on consciousness invariably creates a sense of dis-satisfaction, or stress. The ceaseless cycle of craving and aversion that characterizes the usual human activity consists of alternately grasping at objects of attention, or running away from them, and it is this very pattern which generates the conflicted experience of “me and mine”.

In various Buddhist texts, consciousness is designated as the fifth skandha, or aggregate. The five aggregates (form, sensation, perception, mental formations, and consciousness) together create the illusion of individual and independent personhood. Conversely, the recognition of their inherent emptiness is an indication of the dawn of awakening. Consequently, Buddha is often quoted in the literature depicting consciousness as stressful, transient, and not-self, in order to liberate the seeker from attachment to it. To illustrate, here is a bit of dialogue from the Anattalakkhana Sutta:

“How do you construe thus, monks — Is consciousness constant or inconstant?”

“Inconstant, lord.”

“And is that which is inconstant easeful or stressful?”

“Stressful, lord.”

“And is it fitting to regard what is inconstant, stressful, subject to change as: ‘This is mine. This is my self. This is what I am’?”

“No, lord.”

“Thus, monks, any consciousness whatsoever — past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle; common or sublime; far or near: every consciousness — is to be seen as it actually is with right discernment as: ‘This is not mine. This is not my self. This is not what I am.’

“Seeing thus, the instructed Noble disciple grows disenchanted with consciousness. Disenchanted, he becomes dispassionate. Through dispassion, he is released.”

“With release, there is the knowledge, ‘Released.’ He discerns that, ‘Birth is depleted, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for this world.’”

The non-dual sage Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj has been even more blunt, calling consciousness a “fraud and hallucination”, “an itching rash”, and comparing it metaphorically to “being stung by a scorpion”. He recommends that the aspirant dillgently strive to understand consciousness directly through meditative inquiry, getting to know it inside and out, until it is summarily recognized as “useless and imperfect”, and then transcended.

In Chapter 11 of his seminal text “I Am That”, he clarifies the difference between consciousness and awareness:

Q: You use the words ‘aware’ and ‘conscious’. Are they not the same?

M: Awareness is primordial; it is the original state, beginningless, endless, uncaused, unsupported, without parts, without change. Consciousness is on contact, a reflection against a surface, a state of duality. There can be no consciousness without awareness, but there can be awareness without consciousness, as in deep sleep. Awareness is absolute, consciousness is relative to its content; consciousness is always of something. Consciousness is partial and changeful, awareness is total, changeless, calm and silent. And it is the common matrix of every experience.

Q: How does one go beyond consciousness into awareness?

M: Since it is awareness that makes consciousness possible, there is awareness in every state of consciousness. Therefore the very consciousness of being conscious is already a movement in awareness. Interest in your stream of consciousness takes you to awareness. It is not a new state. It is at once recognised as the original, basic existence, which is life itself, and also love and joy.

In this perspective, consciousness might be considered the relative nature of mind, since it is transitory and dependent on conditions, whereas awareness would be regarded as the absolute nature of mind, since it is the unchanging background. Whatever is subject to change has no enduring reality. Since consciousness is always moving, it cannot comprehend the motionless, so it falls into silence. Just so, by dis-engaging from identification with the stream of thought objects, a space is created for awareness to shine forth unobstructed. This is the purpose of meditation, releasing attention from the passing neural parade so that it can fall back into its source – the silent and aware spaciousness of our true nature.

Ramana Maharshi put it this way: “You are awareness. Awareness is another name for you. Since you are awareness there is no need to attain or cultivate it. All that you have to do is to give up being aware of other things, that is, of the not-self. If one gives up being aware of them then pure awareness alone remains . . .”

Through repeated practice of detachment from “other things”, the power of the mind to abide in its source increases. Thus, the spiritual endeavor in its most fundamental form is a process of letting go, surrender. The sages are unanimous in their suggestion that we give up our obsessions with the past and future, our efforts at trying to force life into our idea of the way it should be, and simply relax into our natural state, which is peace.

In the beginning, there is effort involved, because the distracting power of our mental habits is strong, and the “monkey mind” will not willingly relinquish its throne, but with consistent practice, the effort becomes effortless, and a natural and relaxed spontaneity blossoms. We no longer need to mistake the body and its consciousness for who and what we are, because those errors in discernment and identification have been outshone by the clear recognition of our true nature — Awareness.


Heads Up  D Long

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Waking Up, Growing Up

“Consciousness is an itching rash that makes you scratch. Of course, you cannot step out of consciousness, for the very stepping out is in consciousness. But if you learn to look at your consciousness as a sort of fever, personal and private, in which you are enclosed like a chick in its shell, out of this very attitude will come the crisis which will break the shell.”

~ Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj

At a certain point in the conscious process of inquiry into our true nature and identity, we might begin to slip out of the mental prison of our own fabrication, especially when we come to suspect that the magic show of consciousness has some definite drawbacks. Upon inspection, we can observe that it is always up to something. It is always modifying itself, wanting something, attaching to some hopeful notion or promise, or else avoiding something. It is invariably prone to grasping at some “proof” that sustains the hope that it can survive and thrive in the current form it believes itself to be – an enduringly independent entity in a world of other separate entities.

Furthermore, as we awaken, we begin to understand how the mental judgments we habitually embrace, such as the belief that life is something we need to manipulate in order to get what we think we want, actually creates the sense of dissatisfaction and stress that characterizes our usual experience. For those who are awakening to the light of our original nature, prior to the play of hope and fear, such restless cycles of craving and aversion begin to give way to simply being lived by the effulgent Mystery which is always shining beyond the confines of the small mind.

However, there is a particular paradox about awakening. For one thing, it is not always the blissful experience that some expect it will be, based on the popular “enlightenment” lore. It certainly is not a consolation, much less some kind of badge of accomplishment. In fact, it often reveals to us in a stark and uncompromising fashion just why we chose to remain asleep for so long. That’s because true awakening involves ceasing to grant reality to that which is not real. Just so, the more we open our eyes, the more we recognize that the unreal includes all that we have thought, felt, and presumed to know – all that we cherished about the fictional character we took ourselves to be. That realization can come as quite a shock, often provoking an internal crisis, which is why a relationship with Spiritual Friends and an open-hearted community of fellow practitioners is often recommended to help the aspirant in passing through the fire of transformation.

Seekers are often laboring under many false preconceptions about the process of liberation. For those who are hoping that there will be something special waiting just for them upon awakening, Sri Nisargadatta counters: “If you expect any benefits from your search, material, mental or spiritual, you have missed the point. Truth gives no advantage. It gives you no higher status, no power over others; all you get is truth and the freedom from the false.”

Moreover, having recognized what we have been up to – pretending to be what we never were — there are no longer any excuses for behaving unconsciously. “Waking up” thus comes with the express mandate that such recognition must now be embodied, or incarnated, in the way we act and behave with each other in the world of space and time, otherwise it eventually will become just a vanishing memory. That is what “awakened functioning” is all about. Insight must be grounded in functioning, in relationship. In other words, we must allow the awakening to manifest as a love without condition or boundary, preference or bias.

All along we’ve been committed to some great escape, always wanting things to be other than they are, life to be other than it is, but now those plans are brought to a grinding halt. We realize that there is no escape, this is it. As we awaken, we recognize that there is nowhere to go. As St. Augustine famously noted, “God laughs at the ruins of our plans.”

At the same time, “waking up” also yields the paradoxical recognition that there is nothing to do, or more to the point, there is no doer. This is the difficult part of realization — to discard the sense of doer-ship, let go, and “let God”. It’s the very sense of personal doer-ship that sabotages even profound “spiritual” experiences, where the mind adds a “me and mine” to the functioning, re-enforcing the sense of a separate and enduring self.

We are being called to the realization of an infinite Freedom beyond the reach of both knowledge and belief. This Freedom is what is actually most true of us. When one begins to catch some glimpse of this, inspecting the mind itself to the point of transparency, the reliance on words, scriptures, and all second-hand beliefs, no matter how profound and exalted, becomes obsolete. We are left with the stark realization that we simply Are, that what is, simply is, and in this innocent ordinariness of life we can move, dance, and play as Love without any need to fixate identity in transient self-images of borrowed certainty — no false landings, nothing but open eyes, open hands, open heart.

Such maturity begins to dawn when we are willing to question our most deep-seated beliefs, assumptions, and presumed identities, submitting them to the relentless fire of True Inquiry. When our love of the Real is such that even our most closely held notions and concepts about the nature of ourselves and existence can be subjected to honest and probing investigation, we are beginning to emerge from our spiritual infancy and grow up. Until then, we typically drift along in a dreamy trance of un-inspected security, at the mercy of whatever conditioning filters are operative in the body/mind organism. In effect, we are like sleep-walkers, attendant only to our human animal needs and desires. In Buddhism, this is called The Wheel, and it spins us inexorably through innumerable dreamy births and deaths until the fabric of the dream itself begins to wear thin, and then there is the possibility of Seeing.

However, for just about all of us, it is only when we have arrived at the point when there is no other option, that we are ready and willing to stop and question the dream. After all, in the dream there are limitless experiences to be sought and exploited, and so the wheel keeps on spinning, and the dreamer keeps dreaming. Who would, in the midst of the dream, be so bold as to pull aside the curtain and unveil the wizard of the ego-mind at last? Indeed, the nature of Oz is so seductive, and those poppy fields of borrowed beliefs and unchallenged self-images are so very potent, that the last thing anybody really wants to do is to awaken, despite all protests to the contrary. To truly awaken entails walking off the cliff of consensus reality and flinging oneself into the Unknown, and that is a daunting prospect indeed!

To support our awakening and maturation during the conscious process of inquiry into our true nature and condition, there have been countless helpful suggestions down through the centuries. One way that many have found effective and transformative was introduced by Shakyamuni Buddha, and is known as the Noble Eight-Fold Path. It is comprised of right view, right aspiration, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. In essence, it cumulatively amounts to a prescription for a life lived with integrity, wisdom, and compassion – in other words, growing up.

Right view is born of humility. Without the foundation of genuine humility, all else is vanity. Such humility also entails the realization and acceptance of the fact that, regardless of our presumptions of knowledge, we really don’t know who or what we are. By allowing that recognition in, and totally relaxing into its implication, a space opens up, paradoxically, for the tacit but direct recognition of who we actually are, beyond the conceptual or comparative mind. With the dawning of humility, gratitude is also born.

Right aspiration is intention + attention for the best outcome in life and relations, not just for oneself, but for all sentient beings. A key component of right aspiration is both recognizing and then fully coming to terms with one’s core motivation for embarking on a spiritual adventure in the first place. Many seekers tend to affiliate themselves with some idealistic practice or method without first understanding what they really want – what their deepest yearning truly is. This in turn can lead to a lot of confusion, missteps, blind alleys, and dead ends along the way. For example, many seekers tend to start out with the belief that spirituality is all about the acquisition of exalted states and exotic powers, and hence their efforts only result in fueling the ambition of the ego-mind. Such expectations only add to the baggage that must eventually be surrendered, if one is to truly awaken beyond the need for having one’s existence confirmed and self-projections validated.

Right speech is speaking honestly – both to others and to ourselves. Moreover, right speech also precludes casting judgments about each other, because honestly, humans are the least qualified to judge each other. Consequently, more often than not, right speech is silence. This does not mean that we should refrain from speaking up in the face of injustice, or remain quiet when we see that harm is being done. It does, however, require a mature sense of discernment to gauge what manner of speech is appropriate or not in each situation.

Right action is “doing the right thing” with impeccable integrity, and each one knows what that consists of at any given moment. Nobody has to tell us, and we know in our heart when we miss the mark. To go even one step further, embodying the conscious principle of non-action – “doing nothing” – is true relaxation into one’s original freedom. As the Tao Te Ching wisely advises, “Do nothing, and everything is done.” This maxim should not be misunderstood as a call for avoidance, however. By grasping at nothing, but at the same time, turning nothing away, we can find the “middle way” in every situation we encounter. Alternately, many seekers tend to imagine and believe that right activity is a matter of pursuing various “spiritual” experiences. This can be a big trap, more often than not. Awakening is not adding something new, but letting go of all that obscures our true nature, including the craving for special experiences that end up only fattening the ego-mind.

Right livelihood has been poetically depicted by Rumi as “letting the beauty we love be what we do.” However, in today’s challenging world of shifting occupations, that might not be as easy as it sounds, and in fact, it probably has always been a struggle for most to find work in a field that most satisfies one’s heart. Of course, it would greatly help to gain some clarity and insight on what one’s purpose is for being here, but that knowledge requires a deep and persistent inquiry that few are willing to undertake. In any case, steering clear of any work which involves the exploitation and harm of one’s fellow beings is a good first step, as one strives to come to terms with a proper livelihood. The poet Kahil Gibran beautifully described what it entails to work from love when we wrote:
“It is to weave the cloth with threads drawn from your own heart, even as if your beloved were to wear that cloth.
It is to build a house with affection, even as if your beloved were to dwell in that house.
It is to sow seeds with tenderness and reap the harvest with joy, even as if your beloved were to eat the fruit.
It is to charge all things you fashion with a breath of your own spirit, And to know that all the blessed dead are standing about you and watching.”

Right effort is an art and a skill, requiring above all a finely honed sense of emotional intelligence. For more on this matter, see the consideration on the Brahma Viharas, at
Although there is a state beyond both effort and effortlessness, until it is realized, some effort is necessary. However, this doesn’t have to imply some grim undertaking, but when embarked upon with the serenity and humor that derives from intuition of our native happiness, it can be an enjoyable journey indeed. Without a healthy sense of humor, even the most profound aspirations will become stale and dry. When we refrain from taking ourselves too seriously, our efforts will not be weighed down by the burden of belief in a separate and desperate person in need of saving.

Right mindfulness is stepping back and refusing to believe everything we think – all the chatter of the monkey mind. Moreover, once awakened from the trance of borrowed concepts and transient self-images, right mindfulness means not falling back to sleep, and indulging in old habits of reactivity, such as greed, envy, intolerance, hatred, resentment, regret, arrogance, judgmentalism, or negativity. Right mindfulness goes hand-in-hand with Right concentration, which is unswerving inquiry into the essence of mind, original nature, primordial identity. In the course of implementing the principle of right concentration, one may become naturally disposed to the practice of non-dwelling, which is refraining from fixating one’s attention on any arising mental or emotional formations, while remaining totally present in relaxed and stable wakefulness. It also is supported by the discipline of silence, or stillness.

Our application of these fundamental principles will determine the quality our time spent here, as well as create the foundation for future development, in keeping with the maxim, “As ye sow, so shall ye reap.” Learning how to grow up and behave is the impetus for our evolution, both individually and as a species, and the supports proposed above, when engaged with heart-felt sincerity and resolve, will serve to propel our adaptation to increasingly mature levels of awake awareness.


waking up

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Stop Pretending

“One day a six-year-old friend said to me, ‘Pretend you are surrounded by a thousand hungry tigers. What would you do?’ I visualized the situation as he had suggested and, coming up with no viable plan of action, said, ‘Wow, I don’t know. What would you do?’ And he replied, ‘I’d stop pretending.’”

~Catherine Ingram

Most of us will typically point to our body, and then to our family, our job, our religion, our political affiliation, and so forth, in order to confirm the solidity of our independent existence. However, the problem remains that all those things keep changing, and so how is one really going to pin down and validate their own existence? Indeed, upon thorough inspection, we can recognize that nothing which we can perceive or conceive has any enduring reality, and that includes the pretenses and self-images that we’ve worked so hard to accumulate, nourish, assert, and defend.

If none of that is real, what is? Only Reality is real. It has nothing to do with names, forms, or temporary states of mind. Since it is limitless itself, it underlies all these superficial conditions. It is what is, exactly as it is. It transcends words and concepts like “existence” or “non-existence”. When all the false assumptions and presumptions and mental constructs fall away, what remains is what’s real. It is our own native awareness itself, the only thing that doesn’t change. It is what we are, even while we might be busy pretending that we are this, that, or the other.

Moreover, we cannot attain this awareness. Any effort to acquire it will only push us farther away. Since we are awareness, there is no need to chase after it, trying to add it to the ego-mind’s collection of self-confirming assets. It can never be an object of consciousness, since it is always prior to consciousness. Rather than trying to grasp the Real, a wiser approach would be to simply cease investing our attention and belief in the unreal. The unreal includes everything that we can think, feel, know, or imagine. Only then can reality emerge from behind the curtain of our self-imposed ignorance, and only then can we truly enjoy this present circumstance, whatever or wherever it might be.

Ignorance and un-enjoyment consist of imputing reality to that which is not real. The more we grant reality to that which is not, the more confused and unhappy we will be, and the more we will run around seeking here and there, trying to alleviate ourselves of the ensuing imaginary dis-ease. In fact, the only cure for the imaginary disease is to stop granting it reality. Stop pretending that the story of “me & mine” is what life is about, that we are an independent and alienated person in the midst of dangerous waters, and that there is some reason to be fearful and anxious about our own fictional creations.

Of course, saying that is one thing, but directly realizing it, and then actualizing such a liberating recognition in our life and relations, is obviously another matter altogether. The question is, how do we stop pretending to be what we are not, and awaken to who and what we really are? Fortunately, we have some useful guidance passed down from illumined sages on how to proceed — guidance which has the benefit of being time-tested and proven effective, when applied with devotion and discipline. It entails embarking upon a conscious process of listening, contemplating, meditating, and then cultivating/stabilizing.

Listening: If we don’t listen, then we won’t learn. Consequently, listening is the first step in the process of awakening. The opportunity may come through a variety of avenues, such as reading a certain text, or hearing an exposition from a teacher, watching a video presentation, or receiving some counsel from a friend or associate. In any case, something that we hear strikes us, penetrating our habitual fog, and resonating deep down in our being.

As the great Sage Sri Nisargadatta noted, What you hear must enter you like an arrow and hit something deep within you. There must be an internal reaction; without the reaction what you hear won’t do you any good. You should know it when the arrow reaches its mark.”

In the common vernacular, we’ve heard of “Aha moments”, indicating a defining moment of sudden clarity, realization, inspiration, insight, recognition, or comprehension. For example, we might encounter someone who tells us that we are not the body that we have heretofore taken ourselves to be – that in fact we are much more than the physical manifestation. Living as we do within a material culture, we may have never considered such a possibility before, but now our interest has been aroused, and we begin to pay attention and listen more carefully.

This may lead to us pursuing more study on the subject, in effect listening to what various teachers have to say in regard to who and what we really are. By granting our attention in this manner, we have begun the process of exploration and inquiry which can open the door to eventual self-realization.

Contemplation: Having first listened, the next step is contemplation. In other words, we begin the process of pondering over what we have heard. “Is it true, and if so, what are the implications?”

Here, we employ our intellect in a consideration on the meaning and import of our initial insights and encounters with what we have heard. The intellect is a fine tool, when properly applied to the task of discernment. It can aid us in distinguishing the significant from the superfluous, allowing us to focus more clearly and effectively on what we really need to learn and understand. We carry around with us a lot of uninspected assumptions about the nature of reality, and by employing our refined intelligence, we can see through and release a lot of useless baggage.

At best, our conceptual faculty can point to that which lies beyond the realm of concepts, which leads us to the next step in the conscious process of liberation. Beyond merely intellectualizing about reality, one must eventually come to the direct experience of one’s true nature, otherwise they will always remain “on the outside, looking in”. Hence, the next step is direct seeing, also called meditation.

Meditation: The topic of meditation has generated enough written materials to fill up a huge library, and there are certainly many diverse and illuminating presentations on the subject that one can access through the various media. Fundamentally, true meditation is a process of deepening surrender, or letting go of all that we are not – all of our self-images, our pretense, our beliefs, assumptions, and mental fabrications, and thus all the sources of our mis-identification and ensuing stress and dissatisfaction. It does not so much represent adding a new tool to the tool box, as it does emptying of the whole box itself. It’s letting go of what we never were.

True meditation begins (and ends) with the discipline of silence. Unless we are able to quiet our normally chattering minds, we won’t get very far in terms of realizing what we are (and aren’t). Helpful in this effort is the practice of non-dwelling, by which we refrain from attaching to our thoughts and projections, but simply persist in a relaxed and alert manner to witness the thought stream, without manipulation or identification. We embrace nothing, and turn nothing away. None of it is what we are. When we see nothing, we can relax into that. Such stillness is the womb of Remembrance. Moreover, we are not trying to create some new, fascinating, or sublime experience. We are simply ceasing granting reality to the unreal.

Since we come to recognize, in the midst of our meditative inquiry, that everything which we thought we knew is not so, we can let go of our reliance on limiting beliefs and fall into the Unknown. In such surrender, the space is opened up for the shine of pure awareness to emerge from the background. It is the light behind the mind, which grants the universe the power to exist. Some may call it Love, but no term or description can really be applied, since it is beyond name or form.

At first, we may simply catch a glimpse, and as powerful as that initial insight may be, the power of our old habitual way of living and thinking usually returns to its dominant position in our psyche. The ego-mind is not so easy to dethrone, having ruled the roost for so long. It is a rare soul indeed who, having opened their eyes, is able to keep them open from there on in. Typically, it takes a lot of cultivation to fully embody the realization and so transcend all limits and boundaries.

Cultivation/Stabilization: As mentioned, old habits die hard. Even in the midst of profound realization, ego-mind can usually still be found trying to co-opt and claim it as its own, thereby affirming and confirming its existence. The great Sage Ramana Maharshi noted that, even if one were able to absorb themselves in high states of concentrative bliss (Nirvikalpa samadhi), they would be no closer to true liberation, at least until they were able to “root out the vasanas” (afflictions). In other words, even though we may glimpse our true nature, the poisons of greed, hatred, envy, arrogance, and ignorance still must be eliminated if we are to realize our immortal freedom and peace at heart.

This is where proper cultivation applies, in order that we may come to stabilize in recognition of our true nature, and reflect it in the way we behave and relate. Living with full integrity is the art of life, and being so, it requires all of our life, intention, and attention. There are many aspirants who have had deep realizations, but nevertheless still fail to embody what they have learned, because they have not thoroughly used that recognition which they gained in moments of insight to correspondingly see through and release chronic fixations and dysfunctional positions.

This is why it is traditionally recommended that one seek out a relationship with a qualified living Guide – someone who has been down this road already and can help one see straight and avoid the various pitfalls which can obstruct the way. It is not absolutely necessary, but there are very few who can go it alone, without some assistance, especially at critical junctures and turning points. Ego-mind is clever, our capacity to fool ourselves is enormous, and we all have blind spots which obscure and impede, often without our conscious knowledge.

What remains after this process is the same as what pertained prior to its inception, and it has only been our ignorance which has ever obscured it from us at any point. Awareness has not changed, only our appreciation of our true condition, or identity, has. We can’t strive to be this Awareness, since we already are this Awareness, prior to any sense of individual consciousness. We cannot become what we already are, we can only be “it”.

In order to do so, as the Sages remind us, we need to stop mistaking ourselves for what we are not – these bodies, associations, memories, sensations, or even consciousness at last. Our listening, contemplation, meditation, and cultivation must mature and ripen into the natural and spontaneous recognition that we are the luminous and timeless spaciousness of Awareness — Reality Itself — no longer prone to fooling ourselves that we are anything but “That”. In other words, we can finally stop pretending, let go of the unreal, and simply enjoy being who and what we truly are.


“The most important thing is to enjoy your life and not be fooled by things.”

~Shunryu Suzuki


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Sabotaging Ourselves

In psychological parlance, the term “cognitive dissonance” refers to the mental stress and consequent dysfunction experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time, or who holds a belief and nevertheless performs a contradictory action or reaction. For example, an individual is likely to experience dissonance if he or she is addicted to a destructive habit (such as drugs or alcohol) and continues to indulge that addiction, despite the fact that they know it is seriously harming them and their relations.

In her remarkably insightful book “Application of Impossible Things”, Natalie Sudman employs the term “Contraries” to describe that same process in which we sabotage ourselves by holding simultaneous contradictory beliefs. To illustrate how that happens, she uses the example of someone who desires to attain wealth, but also carries a hold-over belief from their early Christian indoctrination regarding how difficult it would be for a rich man to get into heaven — a challenge comparable to a camel fitting through the eye of a needle. As a result, their belief undermines their intent, and they fail to achieve the financial success they desire.

The point here is that our thoughts are energetic phenomena that create effects. All that we experience is the result of attention combined with intention. If there is some kind of internal conflict in that regard, we will invariably reap confusion and suffering. Indeed, this condition of internal discord is at the source of much of our frustration with life, wherein we are prevented by our own conflicted thoughts from accomplishing our goals and fulfilling our purpose.

In my essays “As We Think” and “How To Change”, I investigate the power of thought in the creation of our life and environs, but in this consideration I am exploring how we specifically sabotage ourselves in our life and relations by clinging (either consciously or unconsciously) to contradictory thought forms.

In his monumental opus “I Am That”, Nisargadatta Maharaj made a keen observation on this subject when he said:

“The real world is beyond the mind’s ken; we see it through the net of our desires, divided into pleasure and pain, right and wrong, inner and outer. To see the universe as it is, you must step beyond the net. It is not hard to do so, for the net is full of holes. Look to the net and its many contradictions. You do and undo at every step. You want peace, love, happiness and work hard to create pain, hatred and war. You want longevity and overeat, you want friendship and exploit. See your net as made of such contradictions and remove them – your very seeing them will make them go.”

In other words, if we wish to align harmoniously with our heart’s deepest yearning, we must first inspect our motives to the point of recognizing where the contradictions lie. Furthermore, as powerful as such recognition may be, that alone may not be all that is necessary, unless we follow up by rooting them out. Clear seeing is an important first step, but actualizing that recognition in the way we live and act is the art of life, and requires constant practice and vigilance. By combining unswerving attention plus intention, there is nothing that we cannot do, but that demands a purity that does not come easily to the human animal. However, by resorting to the expanded awareness available to us as the immortal spiritual beings who are inhabiting these human bio-vehicles, we have all the resources we need to release our obstructing fixations and go on to real-ize our purpose for incarnating.

In any investigation of the conscious process of liberation, we will eventually have to confront and acknowledge the limitations inherent in any self image we hold about ourselves. Indeed, it is only our self-images (the narrative of me & mine) that we are ever trying to assert and defend. Even our most positive self-images ultimately need to be surrendered, if we are to truly awaken to who and what we really are. However, in regard to cognitive dissonance, it is our negative self-image which most obstructs us on our journey. As the American spiritual teacher Adyashanti points out:

“When most people begin to come into contact with the true nature of their own self, they have such a hard time accepting that they could naturally be something positive and beautiful. In the West, many people struggle with negative self-image. I have seen that negative identity held onto even in the midst of profound revelation. It so easily contracts back into, ‘It couldn’t be me. It couldn’t be who I am; it’s just too good.’ [There is] an unwillingness to admit that all the avenues that we try to pursue to make us happy don’t ultimately end in happiness. Yet, we continue to insist that they do in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.”

Once we understand where the dis-connect originates, we can begin the process of clarifying our intent. Otherwise, we will forever be at the mercy of uninspected elements of the psyche, aspects of our being that clash and generate stress and dissatisfaction. In any case, there are no victims. By our choices we created the conditions for dissonance, even if it involved something as seemingly unavoidable as buying into the fear and guilt-based religious stories we were told as innocent and receptive young children. Since the disturbance is ultimately our own creation, it is also our responsibility to both recognize it at its root, and then to let go of it, as part of the conscious process.

Because these areas of dissonance are typically buried at the core of our assumptions about life, we must delve deeply into that core to root them out. The practice of True Inquiry can address them systematically, but to activate such a process requires both persistence and consistence – it cannot be accomplished half-heartedly. If we are truly interested in freedom, we need to tap into our natural devotion. In other words, sincerity and determination cannot be faked. Earnestness is not a superimposed artifice, but must arise from a core impulse to awaken to our true nature.

Fortunately, we are each and every one of us endowed with just such an impulse, or else we would not have put ourselves into such challenging and potentially rewarding circumstances as these human incarnations. Although enlightenment is indeed our prior condition, we have set that aside to enter into these human births, with all the amnesia that entails, just for the enjoyment and thrill of expanding our self-awareness to the point of re-cognizing our true nature, again and again. From our human perspective, we might scratch our heads at such a proposition, but what we are is much greater than the human mind could ever hope to comprehend.

When we hear the phrase “God works in mysterious ways”, we can understand that the “God” referred to is actually who and what we are. It is only accumulated knots of contraction such as cognitive dissonance which impede and obscure that recognition. Thus, as part of the conscious process of re-discovering ourselves – our true nature and bliss — we are called by our Whole Being to see through and release all such limiting and contradictory beliefs, ideas, and assumptions.

Nor need it be some grim slog through layers of psychological muck. Rather, it can be a deeply enjoyable process, if we approach it with humor and humility. That means to not take ourselves so seriously. Someday, we may come to the happy recognition that it is all good, all of it. As Ramana Maharshi smilingly noted: “A day will dawn when you will yourself laugh at your past efforts. That which will be on the day you laugh is also here and now.”




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