In Awake in the Heartland, Joan Tollifson describes a man whom she takes to be severely retarded but who turns out to be a former cardiologist, brain-damaged in a plane crash. “It was a clear revelation of how fragile and temporary our entire persona is. A little tap on the head, and you’re somebody else.”
Tollifson, a longtime student of Toni Packer at Springwater Center and now a spiritual teacher herself in Chicago, has hauled her weighty cargo of mutating personas (alcoholic, radical, one-armed marginal, enlightenment-seeker, perfect teacher-seeker, finger-biter) from Bare Bones Meditation, her first memoir, to Awake, her second, where we see these personas, more or less, fall quietly away.
The seeker-teacher relationship (in her case, a tender, torched, no-nonsense seeker) which forms the core of Bare Bones, gusts in and out of Awake in the Heartland. In the beginning, Tollifson is still organizing Toni Packer’s winter retreats in California, arguing with her about whether or not she has authority, then reconciling with her. Tollifson’s questioning of her teacher and herself is longstanding:
I wonder, is she deluding herself? Subscribing to some pie-in-the-sky belief that she has transcended memory and conditioning, and is miraculously able to “look freshly” with her sixty-some-year-old brain. Isn’t “looking freshly” just another frame, another idea?
She is also still in dialogue with her Zen teacher, Joko Beck, and she even finds herself briefly, ill-fatedly, at the feet of Advaita teacher Gangaji.
But for Tollifson, the Chicago she returns to from the San Francisco Bay Area, in the year of the millennium, is denuded of spiritual teachers. “Chicago is about earth, ground, heart and roots,” she writes. “This place is raw and solid and accepts no bullshit.” It is the perfect place for her to test Joko Beck’s teaching: “Life as it is, the only teacher.” In the heartland, Tollifson is pretty much on her own, locked into an ordinary, day-to-day routine of teaching English at a local college, sharing silence, holding spiritual dialogues with students, and tending to the needs of her ninety-something-year-old mother.
This book offers, as too few dharma books do, a ground-level view of life as practice—chastening, relentless, redemptive.
Mrs. Szostkowski, Tollifson’s nearly deaf next-door neighbor, blasts her radio nonstop. Tollifson rages, bites her fingers, is momentarily appeased by the cooing doves, then pounds on the wall, and her neighbor pounds back. When Tollifson and her neighbor encounter each other in the lobby, they both wave, smile. “The landlord told me you were very nice,” she [the neighbor] says, “but I told him ‘She attacks my walls, how can she be nice!?’ My neighbor’s palm is on my heart as she speaks.”
Tollifson notices snow melting, wind blowing, sadness coming and going. She notices the diminishing of spiritual ambition. “When all efforts to improve and get somewhere fall away, what remains is the traffic, the birds, the breathing, the listening presence, the empty space in which it is all happening, awareness itself: the simplicity and wonder of what is.”
She credits Zen with sending her way the “gift” of empty space, Advaita with turning her attention from the human drama to Pure Awareness. As for her own teaching, her interest, she writes, is in “exploring without roles, without conclusions, without the mythology of attainment, without a system or an answer. I’m interested in something simple, direct, immediate.”
Towards the end of Awake, Tollifson confides to the reader that she’s grown fond of the “Joan character.” Which is not to say that anything has been resolved, merely that nothing needs to be. “If anger should arise, or confusion, or some old habit, it would only be another cloud in the sky, another momentary expression of what is, another face of the mystery.” Another character comes to mind: Alan Bates in King of Hearts, striding naked from the asylum—vulnerable, resolute.