If the only true path leads through the heat of the jungle, right through the center of our fear and hopelessness and despair, then Joan Tollifson is one of those compassionate travelers who has made her way into that jungle and is willing to come back and tell us what it looks like. Vine by tangled vine, in concrete detail, she describes the self-hatred, the judging, the obsessing, the constant analyzing, the lassitude, the unquenchable longing, the whole messy province of spiritual exploration. I laugh, I cry—with recognition—at this deliciously funny, painfully honest, deeply personal account. Tollifson gives me permission to simply be exactly where I am, in the swiftly moving, fickle morass of my own mind, to forgive myself for it, and to be blessedly thankful for the little awakenings, the momentary glimpses of beauty and truth.
“All my life,” she says, “I’ve been waiting for something to happen.” A lesbian with a missing right hand from birth, Tollifson grew up in a suburb of Chicago in the 1960s. She joined the demonstrations against the Vietnam War, slept with the men coming home from the war, hit the gay bars in New York City around the time of Stonewall, became a drug dealer and a drunk, and ended up in California, where she sobered up, went into therapy, joined a group of “crippled dykes,” and began the long, slow process of accepting herself. Like many of us who lived through those times believing that we were in the throws of a revolution, she became a radical leftist. She helped organize sit-ins, learned karate, went to Nicaragua, and moved into a women’s house doing Central American solidarity work. But despite her passionate struggle against injustice, distrust of the dogmatism and the dichotomous thinking of the left began to stir inside of her, and feeling “unsure of anything” she started going to the San Francisco Zen Center. “It seemed like a good time,” she said, “to sit down, shut up, and listen.”
Drawing on her journals, Tollifson now takes us through the ardent journey of her next twenty years, moving back and forth between the world of Zen (three times beginning the sewing of her rakusu at the Berkeley Zen Center where she longs to become a priest, or at least a perfect student of Zen meditation) and Springwater Center in upstate New York (where her teacher Toni Packer strips away the ritual and paraphernalia and calls into question all the old habits of thinking, throwing her students back onto themselves as their only resource).
In her flailing about, Tollifson—like Packer—often turns to nature to find her grounding. In the Springwater sections of the book, her writing is sprinkled with passages of great beauty: the deer who meet her at twilight “like strange masked gods”; “[d]ark, fast patterns of wind race across the skin of the pond”; ice storms during which “[e]very blade of grass . . . was encased in glass. Resplendent.”
Even as Tollifson begins to find a home for herself at Springwater (“We sit by candlelight around the kitchen table at night and sing old Beatles songs”), she is ever truthful to the storminess of her trek into the center of her being. She continues to track the spiraling mazes of the mind, back and forth, through an obsessive love affair, through her frantic struggle to stop biting her nails, through her quarrels with and deep abiding love for Packer. “It is not something you finish doing. . . . It is a process of transparency, a shift in perspective, like suddenly seeing the third dimension in one of those Magic Eye paintings. It can’t be forced, and what is revealed was always already there.” Bare-Bones Meditation is a wonderful book. I hope it’s only a beginning.