To use the author’s own wording: This is a book about what could be called Zen or Advaita or meditative inquiry or radical non-duality in the context of an actual life with all its messiness. This is refreshing. What this isn’t, therefore, is one more book about a person who ‘got it’ in a blinding flash of light, and then proceeded to coast through life in a beatific glow thereafter. It’s about a lifelong seeker, a woman with addictions and anxieties and a compulsion for biting her fingernails until they bleed. It’s about a satsang junkie who veered one from teacher to the next, always in search of that defining experience which would wipe away a lifetime’s suffering, and finally make the world OK. That moment never arrived.
But something else did arrive. The realisation that this moment is all there is. Joan Tollifson’s book is all about this present moment: how we spend our lives running from it, taking substances to escape it, looking for wealth or relationships to augment it. Life always gives us the teacher we need at every moment, she writes. This includes every mosquito, every misfortune, every red light, every traffic jam, every obnoxious supervisor (or employee), every illness, every loss, every moment of joy or depression, every addiction, every piece of garbage, every breath. Every moment is the Guru.
I wanted so much to write a pure book, she writes, a book that spoke only the highest truth. But I kept discovering that what people seemed to appreciate most about me is my honesty. Being a fucked up mess was beginning to seem like my vocation.
Joan Tollifson’s honesty is indeed one of her greatest assets. But she’s also a wonderful writer. It’s been a long time since I read a book about spirituality with such keen observation of the natural world, or such powerful description of inner mind-states. What also sets this book apart is that it feels real. Jack Kornfield is another writer who possesses this quality, which is to write from a position that every reader can equate with, and to speak convincingly of life-situations at the opposite end of the spectrum to so-called ‘spiritual experience’ in a way that makes you know they’ve been there.
Ultimately, Joan Tollifson finds ‘what is’ to the goal of all her seeking. When I look for what I know to be true beyond any doubt, she says, what I come to is presence itself: the simple fact of being here. Everything else is made up.
Call it emptiness, presence, awareness, the Tao, the Self, God, groundlessness, the Absolute, Consciousness, or refuse to speak about it all. It eludes all attempts to capture it. It is truly nothing. And yet, here it is. Here you are. Presence. Awareness. This.
What is this?
What are you?
Are you the character in the story, or the aware space in which the story appears and disappears?……
If the character is no more real than a dream, what is it that’s dreaming?
Joan Tollifson’s website (with an exceptionally good ‘Recommended’ section) is here.
Awake in the Heartland is published by Non Duality Press. You can buy her book below: