When people allow themselves to connect with what their spiritual life is about for them—what their deep questions are, what their deep yearning is—then they have all the vitality they need
Born in 1962 in Cupertino, California—with the given name Stephen Gray—Adyashanti is a well-known spiritual teacher devoted to serving the “awakening of all beings.” Although he often sounds as though he might belong to the Zen or Advaita Vedanta traditions—and, indeed, he practiced Zen for 14 years—Adyashanti attracts students from all backgrounds and says that his teachings are “not confined within any religious point of view, belief system, or doctrine.” He is the author of The Way of Liberation, Falling into Grace, True Meditation, and The End of Your World.
He recently spoke with S&H from his home in the foothills of the Santa Cruz mountains.
You’ve spoken openly about having awakening experiences. How would you describe enlightenment?
Enlightenment involves waking up to our true nature. One way you might describe it is that it’s like having a lucid dream, the experience of suddenly becoming aware that you’re dreaming. All of a sudden there’s another dimension of awareness that is conscious of the dream while you’re in it.
When you’re not conscious of the dream, you think that everything that’s going on in the dream is completely real and significant. It can be all-consuming. But as soon as you realize that you’re dreaming, there are two different qualities of consciousness. One is that you’re aware of whatever is happening in the dream. But then there’s another quality of consciousness, which is when your awareness recognizes itself.
Is that moment of recognition typically a big, wild experience?
Enlightenment is usually talked about almost exclusively in those terms. As a teacher, I found that the bigness or wildness of any kind of awakening experience has very little to do with what may be going on with a person five years after the experience. Sometimes massive spiritual openings are transformative. Other times, after a year or two, it’s almost as if nothing ever happened. Both of those different outcomes can be the result of the same fundamental insight.
In that sense, I think enlightenment exists on a sliding scale. How well have you integrated those insights into your life? That process of integration is an endless journey and it doesn’t necessarily happen after big spiritual openings, as people often think it does. We think, I’ll have an awakening experience, and then I’ll just know by some miracle how it all functions. Often, we don’t know how enlightenment functions, at least not in the beginning.
How can we meaningfully integrate the insights that come from big spiritual openings into our daily lives?
It’s difficult because in those moments you realize that you are, essentially, something quite different from what you might have imagined yourself to be before that. I think the way we approach the integration of that insight into our daily lives is often misguided. We might think that the integration is going to mean living in a particular state of experience. But it’s more of a question of how will revelatory moments actually trickle down into the way we move through life? One way this happens is that you can become more aware of when you’re out of alignment, let’s say. You can be in the middle of a conversation and feel very overtly the moment you say a word that’s not completely true. I don’t mean that you’re lying or deceiving, but there’s the feeling that one word wasn’t quite right. You feel it in your body, like somebody just put a little poison in it.
In other words, it’s not so much what we do as it is what we notice. Someone who is really attending to integration will notice, right in the middle of a sentence, where they’ve moved away from saying the truest thing. At that moment, they’ll have the opportunity either to just keep plowing forward or to just stop for a moment.
Let’s take a step back. Before we can integrate spiritual insights into our daily lives, we need to experience the insights. Do you recommend or teach people specific techniques to help them awaken?
Sure, there are all sorts of techniques. The two fundamental ways that I go about all of this are meditation and inquiry. Meditation is just taking the time to be still and quiet. When you’re meditating, you’re noticing that which is always still and always quiet. If you pursue stillness and quiet, it will usually disquiet you. So it’s more effective to simply notice what is always still and quiet.
Inquiry practice is directly engaging with the existential questions of life: Who am I? What is life? What is God? What is death? In other words, I don’t necessarily recommend a formulaic question. I want to know: What’s your question? What’s the question you have that seems so big that you almost don’t even want to engage with it because it seems so big? Those are the existential questions we all have. Inquiry practice is when we engage with those questions.
Let me give you a quick example. If a person starts to explore the question, Who am I? the first thing I often ask them to do is to slow down so they can see what happens when they search for an answer. Generally, what happens is we start to look inside. Consciousness does this little U-turn and it looks for you. Often, if it can get back behind the ideas and the images you carry around with you, which it actually does very quickly—there’s something there that’s noticed in a split second that most people turn away from. They get the answer immediately, but they turn away from it because it’s not what they expected.
When you look inside to find you, you expect to find something or someone. If you don’t find something or someone, you might say, “I don’t know the answer to the question because I looked and I didn’t find what I was looking for.” Okay, maybe not finding the answer is the beginning of the answer. You expected to find something and you didn’t. What if you just stopped with that? “What am I? I don’t know.” Well, what’s that experience like? That might not be the fullness of the answer, but it certainly opened the doorway. It just happens in a split second.
You’ve said that after you had an awakening experience, you were able to abide in it and no longer needed a daily practice. Can you say more about this?
Yeah, I didn’t need to do anything to keep it going. A lot of false conclusions could probably get made out of that statement. It’s not like I never practiced again. I had my first opening at 25—and other openings after that—and it’s not like I just stopped practicing entirely.
But it’s true that after those openings my practice—if we can call it a practice—shifted a lot. All the goal-driven part of the practice just disappeared. Even the ways that I understood meditation underwent a transformation. No longer did I think I needed to be meditating to be in a clear space. I realized that I didn’t need to be doing anything in particular to be in that space. That doesn’t mean I stopped practicing all the time, but that sometimes I was sitting in a traditional form, and sometimes it was just waking up in the morning and coming down and having a cup of tea while sitting on a chair on my porch for an hour.
So, awakening is not like a car that you have to keep maintaining so that it will run. How do you know when you’ve arrived there?
I think what happens is that you stop referencing “there.” Whatever “there” is for you, you realize, that was an idea I baked up. If you open up books or listen to teachings, you’ll see that even spiritual teachers define enlightenment in different ways. Which of those ways is going to be the way you measure yourself by? What convinces you that the yardstick you’re using is more relevant or more true than some other yardstick that someone else may be using?
The best thing I ever did was to start jettisoning my ideas about what enlightenment was and just made it into an open question.
Earlier you referred to meditation as taking time to notice “that which is always still and always quiet.” Can you say anything more about silence?
Silence is the foundational aspect of our nature. As soon as we stop talking or thinking, life always falls into silence. All life exists within the space of silence. In that way, silence is really a profound part of our own being and our own nature. Meditation is one of the most profound spiritual practices because it is literally simply listening to silence.
The silence I’m talking about isn’t the silence that we can manufacture through really strong concentration. There is that kind of silence, which is a contained silence. That’s the silence of a prisoner with their hands shackled and a piece of tape over their mouth. We do that through concentration. There’s a time for that and a space for that. But the silence that I’m talking about is the silence that’s with you all the time. It’s simply a silence we notice. Silence is a part of life. It’s the aspect of your own consciousness that’s totally and absolutely quiet, even if there’s a thought or a feeling. They’ll all rise within the space of silence.
I’ve found that we can always tell what we truly value in life through what we give our time and our attention to. If we give time and attention to silence, whether we’re in meditation or driving down the road, then it will grow. And if we just sit around thinking about that idea for a lot of time, we’ll just have lots of interesting thoughts about silence, which will just contribute to the noise.
What’s the relationship between silence and what you’ve been referring to as our “true nature”?
Silence is an aspect of what we really are. It’s not the whole definition, of course, by any means. But it’s part of our nature. It’s a much better way to define yourself than by your memories and all the ideas you’ve ever had. Sometimes I ask people, What survives your not thinking about it? Just be as quiet as you can and notice silence for five seconds. What survives? All the thoughts, ideas, opinions, judgments, the past, even defining yourself as a man or a woman or a son or a daughter—all that may have a relative reality to it. But you see that it doesn’t exist when you’re just being quiet. How real can it all be?
But whatever you are, you don’t disappear when you’re silent. The world doesn’t disappear when you’re silent. The glass of water doesn’t disappear when I stop thinking it’s a glass of water. The reality of life actually exists whether we’re thinking about it or not. I think it only takes those five seconds to see where most of us are actually living our whole life.
Does noticing silence mean we’re ignoring everything that doesn’t seem to exist when we’re in silence?
The silence I’m talking about is the natural silence of awareness before we go into a dreamy place, before we disconnect. It’s prior to all that movement of mind. One of the things that I often emphasize when teaching is that it has to be a vivid silence. If you feel spaced-out and dreamy internally, it’s like you’re leaning too far back. And if you just lean forward a little bit, it comes back into view.
Everything that you’re saying rings true in a way, but I also have this sense that it’s slipping through my fingers as you speak. Can you say more about how noticing silence can take shape in our real, day-to-day lives?
What’s important is where your attention is. Is your attention on this ceaseless narration or dream my mind is having? When you’re talking to yourself, have you ever asked yourself, Who do I think I’m talking to, anyway? Are there two of you? Is there one who’s talking and one who’s listening?
In the context of your daily life it just means noticing the underlying quietness in which your life happens. And that can happen anytime, anywhere. As I said, you don’t have to be meditating to do it. Meditation sort of helps kick-start it because you’re undistracted. But it’s also just noticing what is already there.
Quietness isn’t the goal, but it can be a step in the right direction. What comes next? I always figure that when I’m teaching, I’m talking to adults. Often in spiritual pursuits, people start to think like children. What do I do? How often do I do it? What should I be asking? My response is, “I don’t know. What do you want? Why are you here? What is this to you?” Don’t act like a child. You can actually be an adult, believe it or not, even with a spiritual teacher.
It sounds like people need to define their own spiritual goals. Couldn’t that process easily be coopted by a person’s selfish tendencies?
What I have found over the years is that when someone really allows themselves to connect with what their spiritual life is about for them—what their deep questions are, what their deep yearning is—then they have all the vitality they need. All of a sudden, the direction of their whole spiritual life starts to become conscious. We don’t get there, though, as long as we’re too stuck in thinking, What’s the prescription? How often should I be meditating? As I often say, “I don’t know. How often do you think you should be meditating?”
Yes, most people are really well served if they spend some time in silence and meditation every day. It’s a great thing. Even if you’re not involved in spiritual pursuits, it’s good for you. But unless you’re connected to the deeper issues—asking, “What is this about for me?”—it’s not going to be meaningful to you. Once you get your question, you have all the vitality that you’ll ever need.
Earlier in this conversation you mentioned enlightenment existing on a sliding scale. How do you know where you are on the scale?
That has to be a living question inside yourself. What is enlightenment at this moment? That takes away all of the measuring yourself against an ideal. There are a lot of ideals in the spiritual world. People will tell you it’s going to look like this or that. I think it’s much healthier if we just admit from the very beginning, “I actually don’t know what it is.”
That way the answer can change, grow, and become something different over time.
It matures as you mature. It’s not just the answer that matures, but the question matures. The question can become more and more simple as the ideas of what we think we’re supposed to be like fall away. This is a process of discovery. You’ve opened the door and it’s raining. What happens, in your experience, when you let go of your opposition to the rain? It’s a question you’re asking rather than a directive to do something.
Sam Mowe is a regular contributor to Spirituality & Health. He splits his time between Brooklyn and Garrison, New York, where he lives and works in a former monastery on the Hudson River.