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The End Of Your World — An Interview With Adyashanti
Adyashanti (Updated)Jun 08
• Added quote (06/08/12)
“The proof of the depth and embodiment of your realization will be seen in your love relationship. That’s where the proof is in the pudding. If it all collapses in your relationship, you have some work to do. And people do have a lot of difficulties in their relationships.”
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• Adyashanti Interview with Rick Archer of Buddha At The Gas Pump
The End Of Your World — An Interview With Adyashanti
Tami Simon Interviews Adyashanti
More and more people are “waking up” spiritually. And for most of them, the question becomes: now what? “Information about life after awakening is usually not made public,” explains Adyashanti. “It’s most often shared only between teachers and their students.” The End of Your World is his response to a growing need for direction on the spiritual path — and his personal welcome to “a new world, a state of oneness.” In this interview conducted by Sounds True Publisher Tami Simon and excerpted from the book, Adya tells us more about the enigmatic experience of spiritual awakening.
Tami Simon: Let’s return to your metaphor of awakening being compared to a rocket ship achieving lift-off. How do people know if their rocket ship of being has actually taken off? I could imagine some people being deluded about this. Maybe they have read lots of books about spiritual awakening, so they make the leap in their mind that awakening has occurred, but perhaps in reality they are simply sputtering on the ground. How do we know for sure that we have attained liftoff?
Adyashanti: It’s not an easy question to answer. The only way I can answer it is to reiterate what the nature of awakening is.
The moment of awakening is very similar to when you wake up from a dream at night. You feel that you have awakened from one world to another, from one context to a totally different context. On a feeling level, that is the feeling of awakening. This whole separate self that you thought was real, and even the world that you thought was objective, or other, all of a sudden seems as if it’s not as real as you thought.
I’m not saying it is or isn’t a dream; I’m saying that it’s almost like a dream. Upon awakening, the experience is that life is like a dream that’s happening within what you are — within vast, infinite space. Awakening is not experiencing vast, infinite space, feeling spacious or expanded or blissful or whatever. These feelings may be by-products of awakening, but they are not the awakening itself.
Awakening, quite apart from its by-products, is a change of perspective. Everything we thought was real is seen to not be real at all; it’s more like a dream that’s happening within the infinite expanse of emptiness. What is actually real is the infinite expanse of emptiness. It’s the same way that, when you dream at night, your dream does not have reality; it’s your mind, dreaming your dream, which actually has the reality — relatively speaking.
Tami Simon: When you describe your own life story, you say that the rocket ship of your being achieved liftoff at a specific time and date — when you were twenty-five years old. Do you think it is possible that for some people their ship lifted off over a period of a few years — that there wasn’t any specific moment that it happened, but instead it was more like a gradual dawning that that their rocket ship wasn’t on the Earth anymore?
Adyashanti: I’ve seen that, too. I’ve met people for whom awakening almost happened as if in retrospect, like it snuck up on them. The transition may not have been marked by distinctive, obvious moments. It’s almost like they snuck out of the dream or snuck into outer space, and then at some point there was recognition — “Oh, when did that happen?” They can’t really point to any distinct moment when there was a change, but they recognize at some point that a real, total change has happened. So it can sneak up on you; it can happen that way, too.
Tami Simon: Not to kill the metaphor here, but is it possible to say that the rocket ship requires a certain kind of fuel, and if so, what kind of fuel?
Adyashanti: I wish I could say what the fuel is. I don’t know that it’s really possible to say what the fuel is, because it’s not limited to something personal. Awakening does not happen just to people who really want it. Awakening does not happen just to people who are sincerely looking for it. It happens to some people completely out of the blue. I’ve met awakened people who were not on a spiritual path at all. In fact, I’ve met people who were in denial of spirituality, and then boom — out of nowhere—awakening hits them. We couldn’t call such people sincere, and we couldn’t say they were pursuing spiritual realization or even had an obvious yearning for it. Of course, the vast majority of people who have an experience of awakening have had some energy, some yearning, to awaken to a deeper sense of reality. That’s true, but the problem is, anytime we say “this” is necessary or “that” is necessary, there will always be examples to the contrary. Awakening is a mystery. There is no direct cause and effect, really. It would be nice if there were, but there really isn’t a direct cause and effect.
Tami Simon: When you describe the rocket ship, you use the metaphor to talk about nonabiding awakening versus abiding awakening, with the idea that abiding awakening means you are permanently outside of the gravitational field of the dream state, outside of our habitual tendencies to constellate as a separate self. Are you outside of that gravitational field?
Adyashanti: I always hesitate to answer a question like that, but I’m going to try to answer it. I don’t feel that I can say, “Yes, I am outside of the gravitational force.” It’s not really like that. That’s where the metaphor breaks down. All of these metaphors, all these ways of explaining things, they’re just that — they’re metaphors, and they do have certain limitations.
I would say that my experience is that I no longer believe the next thought that I have. I’m not capable of actually believing a thought that happens. I have no control over what thoughts appear, but I can’t believe that the thought is real or true or significant. And because no thought can be grasped as real, true, or significant, that itself has an experiential impact; it is the experience of freedom.
If somebody wanted to call that “being beyond the gravitational force of the dream state,” fine, but I am always hesitant about claiming something. I always remind everybody I talk to that all I know is right now. I don’t know about tomorrow. Tomorrow a thought could come by that could catch me, Velcro me, pull me into separation and delusion. I don’t know — maybe it will, maybe it won’t. I have no way of knowing that. All I know is right now.
That is why I hesitate to say, “Oh yes, I have crossed a certain goal or finish line,” because I don’t see it that way. It sounds like that when I’m teaching, but that is the limitation of speech. What I really know is that I don’t know. What I really know is that there are no guarantees. I don’t know what may happen tomorrow, or the next instant, whether I’ll be deluded one instant from now. What I do know is that I can never possibly know that.
Tami Simon: Okay, I accept that you don’t know about what may happen moving forward in terms of when a Velcro thought may occur, but when was the last time you had a Velcro thought, looking back?
Adyashanti: To be clear, I’m not saying I can’t have a Velcro thought or that I don’t experience Velcro thoughts. A thought can come that can cause an instant of grasping, that can cause a momentary experience of a certain separateness. I’m not saying that it can’t happen or that it doesn’t happen. What I’m saying is that when it does happen, the gap between it happening and the seeing through it is very small. I don’t know if there’s such a state in which such “sticky” thoughts or such moments of grasping would never arise in the human system. It seems to me that to have a human body and mind is to go through those kinds of experiences occasionally. The difference is that at a certain point, the gap between the arising of a sticky thought and its disappearance becomes so narrow that the arising and disappearing is almost simultaneous.
So I wouldn’t say that I’m at some state where Velcro thoughts never arise at all. It is just that the gap gets so small that, at a certain point, you almost can’t see a gap. I think there are ideas that enlightenment is about getting to some place where nothing uncomfortable ever happens, where no delusory thought will ever walk through your consciousness — those very ideas about enlightenment are delusions; it just doesn’t seem to work that way.
Besides, it doesn’t really matter. When that gap is so narrow that it can be seen through very quickly, all of a sudden that’s part of the freedom, too. We realize it doesn’t matter that we’ve had a thought, because we don’t get caught for very long. That’s really part of the freedom. I think the rest is selling enlightenment as something it’s not. I understand that people can hear what I say and create an image about what abiding realization is. But that’s not what I mean to portray. It’s more like the gap between the divisive thought and believing in the thought becomes almost nonexistent.
Tami Simon: I am curious what kinds of situations are troublesome and difficult for you. In our conversations, you’ve shared with me that you can get frustrated at your computer, when, say, your Internet connection or printer is not working. What do you do in those moments? Do you do something to close that gap, or is it just automatic?
Adyashanti: Well, usually the frustration is there, and it’s experienced. I experience it, but there’s no judging thought about it. That’s a real key. And I don’t mean that it is dismissed, not paid attention to, but there’s no judging thought. In general, it comes, it’s experienced, there’s no judging thought about it, and then it passes. It’s not taken as significant.
There is no secondary thought pattern, “Oh, I shouldn’t have gotten frustrated,” or “Why did I get frustrated?” or whatever it may be. Thoughts are involved, because it’s the thoughts that create the frustration, but they are seen to not be true. Seeing that they’re not true dissipates the frustration.
Now, in the past, the process would have been much longer. The inquiry would have been more intense and sustained, and I’d really look at things. But like I said, that gap has narrowed down now, so things happen almost automatically. In a certain sense, it’s like being a musician. You practice your scales, and you practice your scales, and you practice your scales, and then at a certain point it’s become so internalized that it happens almost without any conscious intention. That to me is what happens with inquiry. At a certain point, it just happens, with little if any conscious intention.
Tami Simon: You often talk about thoughts and feelings like they are two sides of the same coin. Isn’t it possible to have feelings that don’t have any thoughts associated with them? What about moments of intense awe or an appreciation of beauty, when tears spontaneously come forward? At such moments, isn’t it possible that you aren’t really thinking anything but that something is just welling up at the feeling level? Or do you believe we are thinking but perhaps at a subtle, subliminal level?
Adyashanti: There is what I would call pure feeling or pure emotion, as anybody who has experienced a great moment of beauty or awe knows. There are pure sensory perceptions, a feeling that comes in that is not created by thought. It happens. However, I would say that the vast majority of emotions that most people experience are duplications of the thinking process; they are thoughts turning into emotion.
But there is pure emotion or pure feeling that bypasses the thinking process. They are how this sensing instrument of ours, this beautiful sensing instrument we call a body, is interacting with the environment, and that is a pure interaction; it’s not a virtual interaction.
Tami Simon: All thinking is virtual?
Adyashanti: All thinking is virtual, sure.
Tami Simon: But if there are feelings that are not derived from thinking, then perhaps there are gut experiences that also aren’t derived from thinking?
Adyashanti: The gut is just another way in which we sense the world. You hear this when people say, “I have a gut feeling.” Sensing with the gut is a certain type of intuitive capacity; it is an instinctual way of knowing. We feel things through that place in the body: our gut is an intuitive sense organ. Of course, we can feel things that are duplications of the mind — fearful thoughts, angry thoughts, conflicting thoughts, contracting thoughts — but the gut also responds as a pure sense organ to what’s happening.
When thought isn’t constricting who we are, people have these kinds of intuitive experiences. Say you walk up to the edge of a cliff. You look down, and you see a huge expanse. There may be fear when you look down, but if you are sensitive, you might notice another response, which is that your consciousness may actually fill the expanse. When we look at huge expanses, often we breathe in, right? In the breathing in, we’re feeling our consciousness open to that environment. We breathe into our lungs, into our heart center, into our gut. Our whole being, our whole body, is in tune with the environment. This kind of opening of the heart — when the lungs go “aah” as consciousness expands — isn’t happening because we’re thinking. This is happening because consciousness is interacting with the environment. This is what I mean by pure sensation or pure feeling. And yes, it happens through gut sensations as well. It’s very powerful and it’s very, very beautiful.
It’s literally the experience of intimacy. It is our being experiencing itself with an incredible intimacy. I’m not saying it’s wrong to comment on it, but as soon as we say something, as soon as we turn to our friend, something changes. For most people, that experience happens for a split second, and then they turn to somebody and say, “Isn’t it beautiful?” And that’s not a wrong thing to say. I say it to people, too, sometimes. But at that moment, if you’re sensitive, you notice that your whole internal environment starts to change, and you start to experience what you just said. Then you are moving into a virtual experience. It’s slightly different from that moment of awe, that moment where the entire body is participating in perception.
Tami Simon: It’s one thing for someone to have the experience of pure feeling when they are experiencing awe and wonder in nature, but is it possible to have a pure feeling when it comes to an emotion like anger? Do you think it’s possible to have a feeling like anger that isn’t a duplicated thought?
Adyashanti: Of course, of course. This idea that enlightenment is about people having beatific, silly little smiles on their faces all the time is simply an illusion. I like to counter that with imagining that we are in a modern-day church, and somebody comes in the back door and blows his lid like Jesus did, kicking over the money changers, yelling at the top of his lungs, “How dare you defile my father’s house!” I mean, Jesus was throwing a holy fit, right? He was upset. He wasn’t faking it. He was literally upset. And he was expressing his upset.
So can one be upset from a nondivided state? Of course, you can. Every emotion is available to us. To be awake doesn’t mean we have fewer emotions available to us. Emotion is just a way that existence functions through us. There is a divided form of anger and there is an undivided form of anger.
Tami Simon: Well, how would I be able to distinguish that inside myself, if I feel a divided form of anger or undivided anger?
Adyashanti: If you feel divided inside.
Tami Simon: If all of me feels angry, then it’s undivided?
Adyashanti: I think we’ve all had the experience where we feel completely angry, but it still feels divisive, conflicted. There is a kind of anger that is — how can I say it? — a good work. In the Tibetan tradition, for example, they have certain depictions of wrathful deities with flaming swords and fire coming out of their hair and their eyes, looking very angry and fierce and frightening, but there is something in those depictions that is different from when you experience your average, ordinary, conflicted anger. It’s something that’s hard to describe, but if you look at these depictions, what’s being shown is a different kind of anger. It’s not an anger that’s tearing apart in a negative way; it is an anger that is tearing apart in a positive way. I may not be doing a very good job of expressing this, but what I am trying to communicate is that even the experience of anger can come from a pure place.
Tami Simon: I am particularly interested in exploring this topic, because I am someone who used to experience a pretty narrow range of emotions. As I’ve been growing as a person I now have available to me this huge, wide range of emotional experience, and it’s really interesting, rich, and glorious in a lot of ways. When I hear you teach that most emotional experiences are duplicate images of thoughts, I want to really understand which emotional experiences are derivative, based on concepts, and which are pure. And how do I know the difference?
Adyashanti: Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that virtual emotions are something that shouldn’t happen or are somehow wrong or somehow secondary. For example, I can think about my wife, Mukti. I can envision her in my mind, and I can feel an incredible, wonderful upswelling of love. I know that that emotional experience is virtual. I know I’m making it up in my mind; I know I’m making it up literally in thought. That doesn’t make it wrong. But if I were to equate that emotional experience of love with real love, then I would be living an illusion, perhaps a heavenly illusion, but an illusion nonetheless.
I can create that kind of image in my mind and at times I do that; her image or thoughts about her float through my mind and there is a wonderful upwelling in the heart. So the first thing is to understand that just because an emotional experience is being derived from the mind, that doesn’t make it bad or something one shouldn’t experience.
If we look carefully, we will see that the vast majority of emotions that human beings experience are derived from what we are telling ourselves at the moment. That doesn’t make those emotions bad or wrong, it’s just a fact. Even if we look at something and then comment on it, we can have a positive emotional response. But if we investigate our experience, often we’ll realize that what we’re actually experiencing is a thought telling us “that’s beautiful” or “that’s ugly.”
How can you tell if an emotion is a pure feeling or is derived from thought? You need to look to see if the emotion comes with a story, if it has images with it. If it does come with images or a story, then you know, “Oh, okay, that’s something that’s being created; I’m actually experiencing the thoughts in my mind.” Which is fine; it is fine to do that. It is just that we can be deluded when we derive our sense of reality from that.
Tami Simon: What about pure perception at the level of the mind? Is there some experience of “awakened mind” in which the mind functions not only as a fabricator of concepts and abstractions but also as a pure sense organ?
Adyashanti: On the level of mind, there is the pure perception of infinity, or what Buddhists call emptiness — the perception of vast, vast, vast, vast vastness. It is being perceived not through the mind in terms of thought, but we could say that section of the body, the mind area, is literally where we are taking in the vastness of infinity, the vastness of space, the pure light of being, the almost blinding light of being. That is being seen on the level of mind, not on the level of thinking. Perceiving in this way is a different capacity than just thinking; it is the mind as a sensing instrument sensing infinity.
Tami Simon: You mentioned that all spiritual paths ultimately bring us to a state of total surrender. But what if the parts of us that don’t want to surrender are hidden, quite buried in our psyche? Consciously, we might surrender everything, but some part of us in our unconscious might still be clutching. How do we get those hiding places to come forward? I can imagine hearing your teaching on surrender and thinking, okay, I basically understand. I know what it means to be on my knees. I know what it means to throw myself down on the ground. But what about the parts in me that won’t surrender? They’re not obvious to me.
Adyashanti: There may be nothing you can do about it. This is the thing that people avoid the most, right? Give me something; give me a teaching; give me some hope. Of course, inside of us there are totally unconscious ways of holding, patterns of holding that we don’t have any access to. Maybe you don’t have access to it, period. End of story. That’s it.
You will have access to it at the exact moment that you are meant to have access to it. We may not like that. People may not like to hear that, but let’s look at our lives, not philosophy or teaching or what we choose to tell ourselves, right?
At least in my life, I can certainly look and see that there were moments where I did not have certain capacities yet. They just weren’t there. I have no idea what I could have done to bring those capacities forward. At certain points, I couldn’t have even heard somebody who told me how to have those capacities.
I had my own teacher tell me certain things literally hundreds of times over the years. And only after ten years did I think, “Oh . . . now I get it. Now I understand. Now it has sunk in.” How was I going to force it ten years before? Could I have forced it? It doesn’t appear as though I could have.
This may not be the empowering spiritual teaching you are looking for, but everything has its time; everything has its place. Ego is not in control of what’s happening. Life is in control of what’s happening. To insist that something can empower us, all at once, to dive into ourselves and see anything and everything we need to see to awaken, is working at odds with people’s experience.
Everything happens in its time. You’re not in control. This isn’t something we want to hear, though, is it? It isn’t something our mind wants. Mostly we want to hear things that empower our sense of control. And we radically push away anything that does not empower our sense of control.
I say this to people all the time. When you start to accept what you see as true — not what I say, but your experience — that’s when everything starts to change.
Many times students come to me and say, “I can’t do anything about this, this part of my delusional apparatus, this part of my personality.” They’ll ask, “What do I do? What do I do?” Often I say, “Well, let’s go back. You just told me there’s nothing you can do. Is that true? Has anything worked so far?” “No, nothing’s worked so far.” And I ask, “Can you find anything to do? Can you see anything to do?” And sometimes they’ll tell me, “No, honestly, I can’t see anything to do.” And I’ll say, “What would happen if you actually ingested that part of your experience that is telling you there is nothing you can do? What if you took it in instead of trying to push it away?”
Often, when they take this in — not just conceptually, not as a teaching that can be dismissed, but really allowing it into the body — then this realization of what it is like to live without resistance starts to change everything. Sometimes the experiences that we are pushing away contain the most transformative insights we need to have. Who would suspect that seeing that there’s nothing, nothing, nothing I can do is going to be transformative? We’re not taught that. We’re taught to avoid that piece of knowledge at all costs. Even if it’s part of your experience, year after year, decade after decade — even if you keep experiencing the same thing over and over — the impulse is to avoid it, to not let it in, to push it away. See what I mean?
We’re all junkies. Really, we’re all just junkies wanting to be high and free. It’s the same dynamic. It’s the alcoholic who realizes, “There’s nothing I can do,” who is on the way to sobering up. As long as that person sitting there is saying, “I can do this. I’m in control. I can find a way beyond this,” no transformation is going to happen. Bottoming out is nothing more than coming out of denial. There’s nothing I can do, and look where I am. We don’t need to know so much about what to do. We need to have a mirror in front of us so we are able to see what we see. When that alcoholic sees and that drug addict sees that there is nothing they can do, that they are powerless to stop their addiction — only then do they start to see themselves in a clearer light.
There’s a transformation that starts to happen that is not contrived; it is not practiced; it is not technique oriented. To me, spirituality is a willingness to fall flat on your face. That’s why, although my students often put me up on a pedestal and think I’ve figured out something wonderful, I tell them all the time — my path was the path of failure. Everything I tried failed. It doesn’t mean that the trying didn’t play an important role. The trying did play a role. The effort did play a role. The struggle did play a role.
But it played a role because it got me to an end of that role. I danced that dance until it was extinguished. But I failed. I failed at meditating well; I failed at figuring out the truth. Everything I ever used to succeed spiritually failed. But at the moment of failure, that’s when everything opens up.
We know that, right? This isn’t sacred knowledge. Almost everybody knows this; we’ve experienced it in our lives. We’ve seen moments like this. But it’s not something we want to know, because it’s not convenient.
Tami Simon: You suggested that we ask of ourselves, “What do I know for certain?” I would ask that question of you. Is there anything you know for certain?
Adyashanti: Only that I am; that’s it. One thing. So in many senses I’m the dumbest person on the planet. Literally. Everything else, to me, is in a state of flux and uncertainty. Everything else we only dream that we know. I don’t know what should happen. I don’t know if we’re evolving or devolving; I don’t know any of that.
But the thing is, I know that I don’t know. And contrary to what you might think, that knowledge hasn’t disempowered me. I haven’t gone to sit in a cave in the Himalayas or to just sit on the couch and say, “Oh well. There’s nothing for me to do, because I don’t know anything.”
Quite the contrary — life has a part to play through me, and so I play that part. I’m in union with the part life plays through me. The part changes all the time, moment to moment, but that’s what I’m in union with. I’m no longer arguing with life — it gets to play its part through me, and now it gets to play its part with agreement, instead of disagreement.
And it seems that when we’re in the deepest state of agreement, the part life plays through us is very satisfying; it’s literally everything we ever wanted, even though it doesn’t look like anything we ever wanted.
Tami Simon: I loved your teaching on the cul-de-sacs that people can get into after an initial experience of awakening. I am curious if you would comment on a cul-de-sac that I see fairly often, which is when people decide to take on some kind of special mission to save the world after they have an initial awakening experience. Do you see this as a cul-de-sac, a way that the ego has claimed the awakening experience for its own aggrandizement?
Adyashanti: Let met talk about it from my experience. Awakening didn’t engender that sense for me. I didn’t feel like I needed to go out and save the world, but strangely enough, when my teacher asked me to start teaching, to start sharing the possibility of this realization, what arose in me was a sense of possibility. I saw that awakening was possible for anybody and everybody. There was a certain sense of missionary zeal about it, which can be alluring and empowering. There’s something wonderful in that inspiration when it comes from a true place.
There was a lot of energy for it, especially in the first couple of years that I was teaching. I’ve found that it can be part and parcel of awakening, because one senses that all this suffering is unnecessary; one really can wake up from this. A sense of mission can come from that place.
After a few years of feeling that missionary zeal myself, I noticed it started to ebb. At first it was like I was a new puppy in the house, jumping up and down at your legs all the time, wanting attention and wanting you to do something. The first couple of years of my teaching I felt empowered with what works and what helps people, and I wanted to share it with people. But after two or three years, that energy waned. I started to feel more like an old dog that was curled up at the side of its master’s easy chair, lying there and letting the world go by.
At this point in my life, the sense of missionary zeal is pretty much gone. There is no sense that something needs to happen. I see the potential in everybody, but there’s no sense of hurry about it.
I see it as a process of maturing. It’s a phase that many of us go through. I think the key is — do we go through it? Do we keep going? Or, at some point, does that missionary zeal provide the platform for the ego’s reformation? If that starts happening — if the ego uses awakening as a new and improved missionary platform — that can lead to all kinds of distortions.
For example, we might start seeing ourselves as the savior of humanity or our teachings as the greatest teachings ever. As far as I can see, if things go that way, we start to get delusional. Often, when this happens, it’s because someone’s ego has grasped on to some powerful experience he or she has had. If there’s latent energy there, and that energy starts flowing into the ego, it can lead to some of the deepest delusions possible.
We’ve seen this from time to time in disastrous cult-like behavior. This can happen when there is a lot of energy flowing into the ego and deluding it. Before you know it, you think you are the savior of humanity.
Whereas in truth, none of us is the savior of humanity. The greatest avatar who has ever walked the Earth, if such embodiments even exist, is like a grain of sand on a vast beach. As human beings, we are all just doing our little part. It’s the totality; it’s the One itself that we are but expressions of. If any of us start to think we are playing a bigger part than we are — if we see ourselves as anything but a small part of an infinite mosaic — it seems to me we’re starting to become inflated and deluding ourselves.
Tami Simon: Do you have any suggestions for how we can point out to people that their ego is using their realization as a form of personal territory? I encounter this quite a lot and have difficulty pointing it out in any kind of effective way.
Adyashanti: Traditionally, there were some safeguards used by spiritual traditions to prevent the ego using realization in this way, but if we look back in the history of spirituality, we see the safeguards didn’t work that well. Often, people who had a profound realization were part of a bigger community. Even teachers were part of a community of teachers. The idea was that people would keep an eye on each other.
In truth, it never happened like it was supposed to. Teachers can keep an eye on their students, but once somebody breaks out of that role, there’s not that much keeping an eye on each other. I mean, we’ve seen that in almost every tradition. There are people who get inflated or go off on some strange tangent. I do think it’s perfectly appropriate that we try, if not to change people, then to reflect back to them — especially if we see somebody really half-cocked. Not that they’ll listen!
I wish I had a good antidote to what you are describing. I’ve mentioned that, as a teacher, when I discover students who are inflated with their own realization, it is the hardest thing for me to get them out of. I think it’s one of the hardest things for a spiritual teacher to deal with. And if a spiritual teacher has a difficult time with his or her students, where there is already a certain sense of trust, how much harder is it going to be for the average person to come up to someone and say, “Hey, you know, you may not be as pristine an example of liberation as you think you are.”? It can be a really difficult thing to do.
Without making excuses for anybody, we do each have a certain karmic makeup. I have been the type of person, through no choice of my own, who has never been attracted to power. Here I am, a spiritual teacher, which is a role that people give great power to. However, the way I see it, the truth is that I have no power at all except the power that other people grant me. All the power is in the students’ hands. And it’s good for people to know that. I’ve always experienced that when people give me too much power or authority, I start to feel like I’m living in a surreal bubble. Inherent in people giving other people power is a projection, right? When somebody gives me too much power, they’ve projected that I am something different from them. And I find that a surreal environment to be in. That’s why I avoid it as much as I can, because it has a sense of unreality to it.
Other people, quite obviously, are more attracted to power than I am. They find it alluring to be the positive projection of others. It’s enticing to them. I couldn’t say exactly why; it’s just never been comfortable for me, personally.
Tami Simon: At the age of twenty-five, when you experienced what you call your “first awakening,” you mentioned that you heard a voice that said, “Keep going, keep going.” What is that voice? Would you call it your conscience, or the still, small voice within?
Adyashanti: You can call it either one of those.
Tami Simon: It seems that if we each have that type of inner voice, then that inner voice would keep us from co-opting our realizations into a personal power play. You heard that voice that said your realization was not complete, but does everybody possess an inner voice like that?
Adyashanti: In one sense, I would say yes. In an ultimate sense, we are all the same, so we all have access to the same capacities. At the relative level, however, the question is whether everybody hears their inner voice. Apparently, not everyone does.
What is this inner voice of wisdom? It is what I am pointing to when I talk about sincerity. It is the intelligence within us that keeps us on track, keeps us in alignment.
In one sense, I think almost everybody has experienced this still, small voice. The example I often give is when you are dating some man or some woman and it ends badly. Something inside you says, “Don’t do that again.” But then we meet someone new, and we don’t listen to the voice. We are attracted; this person is sexy, and we just want to be with him or her. In the end, we find that the still, small voice was correct. We shouldn’t have kept dating that person. In the end, it all collapses, and in the end, this still, small voice wins.
So this still, small voice is not mystical. It is something that I think a vast majority of people have heard at times. But we’re so good at dismissing it. We want that still, small voice to justify itself — to tell us why. One of the good indications that the voice within us is authentic and sincere is that it will never justify itself. If you ask it, “Why?” you’ll get silence. If you ask it to explain itself, it won’t. The still, small voice doesn’t need to do that — and it doesn’t.
If you are talking to the ego and you ask, “Why?” it will talk back to you. If you ask the ego, “Does this mean everything will be okay?” it will give you assurances. The still, small voice, though, has an inherent sort of insecurity about it. It offers no guarantees. The voice is a gift. Either we listen or we don’t.
Why I listened, and why others don’t, I don’t know. I couldn’t say why. I’m just glad that the voice was there in my case and that I could hear it. It was persistent. And, by the way, I didn’t always listen to it. Many, many times I didn’t listen to it.
Tami Simon: Is that voice like a guide, a protector, or just part of our mind, part of who we are?
Adyashanti: I think it’s all of that. It is a guide. It is a protector. It is the flow of existence. By the way, this intelligent flow of existence doesn’t always show up as a voice. It’s not always audible. At this point, for me, it’s very rarely audible. At other points, it was literally a voice. As I said, during that first realization, the voice said, “This isn’t the whole of it. Keep going,” and it was an audible experience.
But now, this guiding intelligence appears more as a flow. It is more like sensing the energy currents in life. The voice is also an indicator of the flow. I think it has to become a voice when we can’t feel the natural flow of life, the flow to turn left or the flow to turn right, the flow to do this or the flow to do that.
Many of us aren’t sensitive enough to feel that, and so the flow appears as a voice. But at this point, for me, it’s much more like following a natural flow. As the Taoists would say, follow the flow of the Tao.
So it has different aspects to it. It’s a flow. It’s a voice. It’s a protector voice. It’s your counselor. It’s your conscience, but not the conscience society taught us. It is a different conscience than that. Because the conscience that society taught us is our superego — and that conscience always contains judgments. This is not the superego. This is something else. This comes from a totally different state of being.
Tami Simon: You’ve talked about how, early on, you came to the discovery that you couldn’t ride the coattails of a teacher, a path, or a tradition, that you were going to have to find your own way, and how important that was.
Adyashanti: That was hugely important for me.
Tami Simon: And you encouraged your students to also find their own way. What is interesting to me is that, at the same time, it seems that many people, including me, feel a connection with you and feel somehow less alone because of knowing you, almost like we are alone but together at the same time. Could you talk about that?
Adyashanti: When I was in my early twenties, and I realized that I needed to find my own way and not rely solely on a tradition or a teacher, an image came to me. It was an image of being out on a space walk with a cord connecting me to a space capsule, and at a certain point, I reached down and cut the connecting cord. I was alone, and I wasn’t dependent on anyone or anything. Yet, this didn’t mean that I left my teacher; this didn’t mean that I left my tradition. I didn’t reject anything. It was simply a seeing that ultimately the responsibility is here; it’s in me. Ultimately, no tradition, no teacher, no teaching is going to save me from myself. I realized I can’t abdicate that authority.
And, of course, at that moment, it was very frightening. I thought, my God, what if I delude myself? At that moment, I knew that I didn’t know much. And yet there I was, determined that everything needed to be verified inside.
Many people have told me that they see themselves as my students and that it is different from studying with other teachers, because I’m not the kind of spiritual teacher who has a personal relationship with my students. I come, I teach, we interact when I teach, but I don’t have a retreat center; I don’t have an avenue in which we relate in a casual way. It is moment by moment by moment by moment by moment.
This is not the only kind of relationship to have with a teacher, by the way. I think close student-teacher relationships have a great part to play as well. In fact, when my teaching started to get bigger, when it went from small to quite large over the course of several years, there were some people who missed the smallness. The smallness worked for some people — I would teach, we’d have tea or lunch or breakfast afterward, and that worked for certain people. When the teaching got bigger, and by necessity the structure of things changed, for some of those people it no longer worked. They had to go find something that better met their needs, where there was more intimacy.
By the very nature of it, the style in which I teach is one in which people need to at once stand on their own, but also through standing on their own to find a certain intimacy with each other. That’s where I meet people, in that place where I see them as whole and capable and having capacities that they may not think they have. And when they stand there and they start to discover their own inner sufficiency, that’s where we meet. I don’t meet people in their insufficiency, where they don’t think they’re capable. The more they stand up in themselves the more we find ourselves meeting in an intimate way, a very personal, impersonal way.
There are a lot of influences that come to our aid when we’re willing to be on our own — seen and unseen, known and unknown. The point is not to get stuck on the idea that it is all about being alone. That is a particular experience of a moment of aloneness, of facing oneself, of not grasping on to the teacher or the tradition or the teachings — including mine, by the way. All of a sudden, you are left with yourself; that is the aloneness. But when we face that and we are willing to be there, mysteriously we start to find we have lots of company. There are lots of people doing the same thing. The teachings start to be seen in a different way; the teachers that we may study with start to be seen in a different way. A much more mature relationship ensues from that point.
Tami Simon: During what you call your “final awakening,” at the age of thirty-two, you have mentioned in other interviews that part of that experience included seeing your past lives. I realize that this is not something you like to talk about.
Adyashanti: Yes, we know each other well enough that you know that, but it looks like you are going to move forward anyway — good for you.
Tami Simon: The legend, as you know, is that the Buddha, sitting under the Bodhi Tree, saw his past lives flash before him as part of his awakening. I’d like to know what you saw.
Adyashanti: I will try to explain what happened experientially. At the moment of awakening, it was as though I was completely outside who I thought I was. There was a vast, vast, vast emptiness. In that vast emptiness, in that infinite emptiness, there was the smallest, smallest, smallest point of light you could imagine. And that smallest point of light was a thought, just floating out there. And the thought was: “I.” And when I turned and looked at the thought, all I had to do was become interested in it, in any way interested, and this little point of light would move closer and closer and closer. It was like moving close to a knothole in a fence — when you get your eye right up to it, you don’t see the fence anymore; you see what’s on the other side.
So as this little point of “I” came closer, I started to perceive through this point called “me.” And I found that in that point called “me” was the whole world. The whole world was contained within that “I,” within that little point called “me.” There wasn’t really an I, but an emptiness that could go into and out of that point, in and out of it, and it’s like the whole world could flicker on and off, and on and off, and on and off.
And then I noticed there were all sorts of other points, points, and I could enter each one of those points, and each one of those points was a different world, a different time, and I was a different person, a totally different manifestation in each one of those points. I could go into each one of them and see a totally different dream of self and a totally different world that was being dreamed as well.
For the most part, what I saw was anything that was unresolved about the dream of “me” in a particular lifetime. There were certain confusions, fears, hesitations, and doubts that were unresolved in particular lifetimes. In certain lifetimes, what was unresolved was a feeling of confusion about what happened at the time of death. In one lifetime, I drowned and did not know what was happening, and there was tremendous terror and confusion as the body disappeared into the water.
Seeing this lifetime and the confusion at the moment of death, I immediately knew what I had to do. I had to rectify the confusion and explain to the dream of me that I died, that I fell off a boat and drowned. When I did this, all of a sudden the confusion from that lifetime popped like a bubble, and there was a tremendous sense of freedom. Many past-life dreams appeared and each one of them seemed to focus on something that had been in conflict, something that was unresolved from a different incarnation. I went through each one of them and unhooked the confusion.
Tami Simon: Were you lying on a carpeted floor with your eyes closed or something?
Adyashanti: No, actually, the strangest thing was that I was walking across the living room when all of this happened. I can’t tell you how long I was walking. It could have been five seconds — because all of this is outside of time — I don’t actually know. I could have been walking across the living room floor for five hours, but I was, literally, just walking across the living room.
And it’s not like I stood still; I was walking and it all happened right in the midst of what I was doing. I walked across the living room, I went into the backyard, I was doing something, I don’t even remember what I was doing, and simultaneously this whole other thing was happening, too. I know it sounds odd. This didn’t happen in a moment of meditation; it was completely mixed in as a part of ordinary life.
As you know, I haven’t talked much about this kind of thing. I don’t want to talk to a lot of people about past lives, especially the radical nondualists who say that there is nobody who was born, there is nobody who has past lives, there are no incarnations, and so on. Of course, that is all true; it’s all a dream, even past lives. When I talk about them at all, I talk about them as past dreams. I dreamed I was this person; I dreamed I was that person.
Personally, I’ve never tried to gather experiences of past lives and wrap them all up in some sort of metaphysical understanding. I don’t have a clear understanding about what a past life is, except that it seems clear to me that it also has the nature of a dream; it doesn’t have objective, actual existence. Nonetheless, the experience I had happened. Since it happened, I can’t say it didn’t happen. But in my own mind, I don’t try to figure it all out. All I know is what happened.
Tami Simon: Was there a sense when you looked at each of these dreams that there was some kind of resolution occurring?
Adyashanti: Yes. Not only a resolution there, but also a resolution now. Because it’s all one thing. Because anything that was unresolved in one of those dreams was unresolved now. Because it’s the same; there’s a connection.
One of the reasons I haven’t talked much about past lives is that some people who are extraordinarily awake have never seen a past life at all. Being aware of past lives is not a necessity. I’m not a particularly mystical person. There was a relatively short period of time, a few months, when I had these kinds of experiences happen occasionally, and since then, every now and then, but not with any great consistency. So they don’t need to happen; it’s just that they did happen and it’s not uncommon for them to happen for some people. What people usually see, if their experiences are real, is what needs to be seen, what needs to be freed.
As one great Buddhist abbess said to me, “You usually don’t have a past life that shows you what a sterling example of enlightenment you were, because enlightenment leaves no trace; it is like a fire that burns clean. There’s no karmic imprint it leaves behind.” She said if you have any past lives, you’re probably going to see what a grade-A jackass you were — which I loved, and which has corresponded to my experience. I didn’t necessarily always see what a grade-A jackass I was, although in some cases, I saw that I was a lot more than a grade-A jackass. Most of the past lives I saw were moments of confusion, moments of unresolved karmic conflict.
Tami Simon: Part of the reason I am bringing up the topic of past lives is that I have heard several people say something like this about you: “Adya must have been a realized being in a past life and that’s why he’s had such tremendous breakthroughs at such an early age and is able to articulate teachings on awakening in such an original way.” What do you think about that comment?
Adyashanti: If you ask me point blank, then yes, I’ve seen myself doing something similar to what I’m doing in this lifetime many times before. But again, I don’t know the whole metaphysics of past lives and how they work and I don’t see things happening in terms of linear cause and effect. In fact, my experience of past lives isn’t that they are actually past. I call them that because that’s how people relate to them, but if I were to say what my real experience is, it’s more like simultaneous lives.
It’s like if you have a dream at night and in the dream you are a particular person. And in your dream you start to remember, say, all these past lives. Say you remember fifty past lives very intimately, very clearly. “Oh, this happened or that happened.” And it seems like it happened in the past. Then you wake up from the dream and you’re lying there in your bed and, “Wow, that was an interesting dream. I dreamed that I was somebody who had all of these past life experiences.” It may occur to you, “Wait a minute, I was dreaming up those past lives all at once. All of them were being dreamed right now. They didn’t have any existence before I dreamed them.” That’s kind of how I see it.
I don’t see them as past because they’re all simultaneously occurring, all simultaneously interacting.
Tami Simon: Having seen through the fence hole opening to different dreams, what do you think will happen — and don’t say you don’t know! — when we die? What do you think that experience will be like?
Adyashanti: And I can’t say I don’t know? Well now you’ve really tied my hands, Tami.
My mind doesn’t go to what will happen when I die. If I think about death, the only place my mind goes is that death is just the next experience — that’s all it is. It’s the next experience; it is a different experience than sitting here talking to you, undeniably, but ultimately it’s the next experience that consciousness has.
Nothing dies. Spirit doesn’t die, but it does have the experience that we call death — the dissolution of a body, the dissolution of a lifespan, of a personality — all that dissolves. And Spirit or consciousness has that experience, just like it has the experience of being born and living and talking to you at this moment.
This moment is Spirit having this experience. If you ask me, “What’s death going to be like?” I can’t relate to it as this thing we think of as death actually happening the way we think it does. I have nothing in me that relates to death as an actual fact. I relate to death as an experience. Just like the next experience. It will be wonderful to see what that experience is like. But I don’t see it with a sense of finality or with any of the common connotations that we think of as death.
Tami Simon: Do you think there’s any quality of experience that’s available after death that’s not available when you are incarnate?
Adyashanti: Waking up is dying. That’s what it is. When the awakening happened, I died. Everything disappeared, blanked out. Everything that everybody fears the most is what happened to me. Total blankness. Absolute nonexistence. Nothingness, nothingness, nothingness. At that moment, no past life, no present life — nothing — no consciousness, no birth, no sickness, no nothing. Zero. It’s everything that everybody is terrified of. That’s what happened to me; that’s death.
And it just so happens that death is itself life. We must die in order to truly live. We must experience absolute nonexistence in order to truly exist in a conscious way.
Tami Simon: I’ve heard people say, “Such and such will become available after you die, but while you’re in a human body, you can’t know this or that. Once you’re not in a body, then there’ll be enough freed up for you to know.”
Adyashanti: All of us will experience exactly what we believe. If you believe that, that’s what you will experience. Remember, there’s no such thing as “objective” reality, an objective way that everything must work. It works the way you dream it to work. That’s the only way it works. That’s the only thing that’s happening. So if one believes that, it means that’s the dream that consciousness is having through them, but that dream has no more validity than any other dream.
Of course, at the moment of physical death, there is the dropping away of the physical experience. In a sense, it’s a forced awakening. When the physical body drops away, the personality structure is going to drop away as well. It’s not that you are going to be detached from it; it’s just going to be taken away. At that moment, a lot becomes available, because a lot of what you grab hold of is no longer there. You’re no longer dreaming the body into existence — it’s just not there. So does a lot become possible? Of course.
The same thing is true for some people who are near death. Some of the most amazing experiences I’ve had have been with human beings who are very close to death. I’ve come to visit them at their bedside. And those who are ready for it have already let go. Sitting at their bedside, you can feel death approaching and how they have already let go of the body. In a real sense, they’ve already died, they have already let go, and they already know, some of them, that all is well.
When you’re lucky enough to be in the presence of someone like that, there is an experience of total radiance. It is as if the body has become totally transparent to Spirit, to the inner presence. And the only reason it’s become transparent is because the person is no longer holding on to it.
So, clearly, the actual physical moment of death doesn’t need to happen for someone to let go, not ultimately.
Adyashanti (whose name means “primordial peace”) dares all seekers of peace and freedom to take the possibility of liberation in this life seriously. He began teaching in 1996, at the request of his Zen teacher with whom he had been studying for fourteen years. Since then, many spiritual seekers have awakened to their true nature while spending time with Adyashanti.
The author of The End of Your World, Emptiness Dancing, The Impact of Awakening, and My Secret Is Silence, Adyashanti offers spontaneous and direct nondual teachings that have been compared to those of the early Zen masters and Advaita Vedanta sages. However, Adya says, “If you filter my words through any tradition or ‘-ism,’ you will miss altogether what I am saying. The liberating truth is not static; it is alive. It cannot be put into concepts and be understood by the mind. The truth lies beyond all forms of conceptual fundamentalism. What you are is the beyond — awake and present, here and now already. I am simply helping you to realize that.”
A native of Northern California, Adyashanti lives with his wife, Mukti, and teaches extensively in the San Francisco Bay Area, offering satsangs, weekend intensives, and silent retreats. He also travels to teach in other areas of the United States and Canada.