Adyashanti: Ultimate Flexibility
Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge.
One of my favorite spiritual teachers is a forty-seven-year old who lives in Northern California named Adyashanti. Adya (as he is called by friends and students) is often described as a non-dual teacher, someone who teaches about awakening to oneness or what Adya calls awakening to non-division. He was trained in the Zen tradition, and when he had what he calls a great awakening he says that he woke up even from Zen. Sounds True has published many programs with Adya, including an audio series on Spontaneous Awakening, a book/CD combination on True Meditation, and a book and audio series on The End of Your World: Uncensored Straight Talk on the Nature of Enlightenment.
Soon after we published The End of Your World: Uncensored Straight Talk on the Nature of Enlightenment, Adya along with his wife, Mukti, came out to Sounds True for a visit as part of a summer trip they were making to the Colorado mountains. During the visit, I actually dragged Adya into our recording studio and on the fly had a conversation with him about something that I’ve been wrestling with every since we created the book together–which is the way many contemporary non-dual teachers talk about how important it is to be without position — to not believe in the reality of any thought or belief or take a position on anything. Now, I understand that all thoughts are inherently untrue because thoughts are abstractions, they’re labels, and they’re one step removed from actual experience, which is non-conceptual, direct experience. But given this, and this was what I wanted to talk to Adya about, how do we make sense out of the value that certain kinds of thoughts can have — inventive thoughts, kind thoughts, how do we understand that?
Here is my conversation with Adyahsanti on just that question . . .
Tami Simon: Adya, one of the questions I have relates to what seems to me a little bit of a confusing view of how to understand thoughts once you start looking at whatever the mind generates as potentially fiction. Like, Oh, that’s just something my mind made up, like, You’re short, for example. I am not sure why I thought of that.
Adyashanti: Maybe because I am short.
TS: But maybe you’re not short. Maybe it’s just a relative term so that everything that comes up in the mind, you’re short compared to somebody who is tall. You’re not actually short, necessarily, if we lived on a different planet where you could suddenly be tall. Every thought that the mind generates becomes relative. So you can’t trust any of them. My question to you is that is everything that the mind generates, such as ethical thoughts like, I just don’t think that’s right for that kind of environmental destruction to happen. The way I want to vote. Is everything the mind generates fiction?
A: No. I think that would be totally misleading. There’s not a level playing field in a sense that everything thing you say or don’t say are not equally true or untrue. Some things we say are truer than other things. From the Absolute point of view, we could say that the Absolute transcends all language and all statements. But the Absolute point of view also includes and expresses itself through relative points of view. So it would be ridiculous if you looked from a human being and saw an ant and said, “Oh that ant, it’s not small, it’s huge.” From a human perspective, it’s big. We could say, “Ultimately gravity doesn’t exist.” But you know, if you don’t get out of the way of a rock falling on your head, that Absolute truth isn’t going to do you much good.
Thoughts can arise basically from two energy fields. One of these is from a place of compulsive thinking or a conditioned mind, generating conditioned thoughts. Like you said, you can look at somebody and your conditioning will want to define them; they’re short, they’re tall, they’re smart, they are loving, they’re scary. You know, our conditioned mind likes to package everything very quickly. That kind of thinking is just completely conditioned and mechanical. I think the vast majority of thoughts that go through people’s minds are of that variety while they walk about their day. But thought can also come from a different energy field.
In Buddhism, they have a word, Prajna and its rough translation would be, “heart wisdom,” and it’s a wisdom that arises not necessarily from the heart center being open but it’s a way of saying that it doesn’t arise from the conditioned mind. And there are thoughts that can arise from a different place rather than from a conditioned from Prajna in a practical sense, I guess you could say, from silence. Everyone has experienced Prajna. It comes from an insight, you know, when you have those moments of ah-ha. It’s like a gift. You may have thought about something for a long time and worked on it and then all of a sudden, at the oddest moments, there’s just a moment of ah-ha and that’s the opening of Prajna. And with that ah-ha there’s a physical component.
You hope that your whole body is partaking; there’s energy there. That’s the bringing the breath in, ah-ha, so your body is partaking in it. And then there’s the intellectual side of it so there’s the thought. There’s the Oh I understand this now, I see through that. So that’s a whole different level of thinking, you could say. It’s not compulsive thinking but it’s more on the level of insight and ah-ha than sequential thinking. And from that level of discrimination, because that’s one of the real misunderstandings, we can come into these states of consciousness or views, and I like to think of ultimate reality or enlightenment as a jewel, with many facets. And when you look from a particular facet, let’s say from emptiness, and from there, there is nothing wrong, it’s beyond good or bad; there are really no judgments to be had and there are really no discriminations to really be made. Everything seems to be a bit on the level of an ephemeral illusion or dream nature and from that facet of ultimate reality, it’s true. The problem with each of these facets is that each of these facets or views from reality is . . . each view feels like when you come into contact with it, it feels like it’s the complete view. That’s the problem with it.
When people come into these views, there’s nothing to do. There are no discriminations to be made; they are all illusions. From that particular facet, that’s true. But what often happens is that you think that is the only truth, and then we have fallen into a sudden spiritual trap. As I said, each view feels complete, so it’s easy to get stuck. When you’re not stuck, then your consciousness can sort of navigate through all these different facets and ultimately that’s the real view of all facets: available and complete, intermingling. So it’s like, yes, the ultimate truth is beyond what’s good and bad and right and wrong, and yet from another facets, there is good and bad, and from a certain perspective, there is right and wrong. At the same time there isn’t, simultaneously.
From the level of conceptual thought, that’s a contradiction that doesn’t make sense. In our mind we say, It has to be one or the other, but from the level of insight, we see that these very contradictory views can and do simultaneously exist and actually contribute to a much vaster view. Does that make sense?
A: As I see it, with each of the spiritual traditions, if you really start to look at them, you start to realize that each of them has a gift to give. And the gift is usually that they highlight certain facets of the jewel. None of them highlight them all equally. Certain ones highlight certain facets, and that’s good, because if you try to highlight everything all at once, you just get confused. But there’s also a trap in it in that you can forget that there are many different views that go into this overall view of reality.
TS: One thing I’ve heard you teach on often is this idea of not believing the “next thought,” whatever that may be. And yet, what I hear you saying now is that it’s possible that the next thought might be a really important insight or a vision, let’s say. What if, throughout history, various kinds of entrepreneurs and innovators and visionaries of all kinds didn’t have a vision, and said, “I’m a non-dual practitioner. I’m not going to believe the next thought/vision I just had?” You know what I mean?
A: Right, like, “It’s a thought and therefore it can’t possibly be true.”
TS: Exactly, like when somehow the Universe was delivering an incredible cure for a virus or something?
A: Right. I like to try to make these things as simple as possible because they are, in one sense, complex, but can be very simple. The Buddha used to talk about the spiritual teaching being like a medicine. In fact, he’s sort of been talked about like a doctor. Someone comes with this particular disease. So something comes to me or some other spiritual teacher and through the interaction, the spiritual teacher is basically diagnosing their dis-easement. So someone might come to someone like myself; I see that they are really caught in conditioned thinking and so the medicine that I might give them is meant for that particular dis-ease, which is, Don’t believe your thoughts anymore.
It’s like when someone comes with bacteria and you give them antibiotics and it cures it with the antibiotics. It does mean they should be on antibiotics their whole life, and it doesn’t mean that they antibiotics is “health.” The antibiotics could help bring them to health. This, I think, is an important thing when it comes to spiritual teachings, because often, the teachings, which are ultimately medicines for particular dis-easement or distortion, become mistaken as the truth. So a teaching like, There’s no such thing as a true thought, becomes not a medicine, which is how I would mean it, but as a statement such as, “This is the ‘Ultimate Truth.’” I see it as a medicine for a particular disease. If it’s understood that way, then it can help bring someone back to a more healthy state of consciousness.
Then from that point, one can start to discriminate and have a subtlety within their perception, where they can start to feel and notice and discern a thought that is coming from a conditioned mind from a thought coming from Prajna or a deep intuitive wisdom. Then the old teaching of There’s no such thing as a true thought is no longer relevant anymore. Just like when someone is cured of an illness, you stop giving them that medicine. Maybe they will just need to look at their lifestyle or something different. I think that’s the difficulty with teachings for not only the students I’ve seen but a lot of teachers mistake the teachings for the truth and the teachings are not the truth. Buddha told us that 2500 years ago; I saw it in myself. We come upon many different insights and understandings, but you have to be willing to let go of grasping onto them about as fast as they come.
TS: The teachings are a facet of the jewel, but when you say that they aren’t the truth, you mean they can’t be the whole jewel, they can just be…?
A: At best they can represent the facet, but they still can’t be the facet.
A: It’s like a teaching can say, “If you look at life through this window, it’s going to look this way,” but the only truth is when you are looking through that window, right? So even the teaching that describes what it will be like isn’t the ultimate truth. It’s your view that will be the truth, that awakened consciousness that is going to be the truth. The teaching may be significant to helping you get there, but once you get there, then you don’t need to hold onto the teaching. And I think, especially in non-dual traditions, that you utilize very powerful, potent, and actually very simple teachings to shift people’s consciousness. They are very potent because they are so very simple and because they are so different than the way we are all taught to think and perceive.
So someone who comes to a non-dual teacher that spent many years struggling and striving in the spiritual practice and the non-dual teacher says, “There’s nothing to do. All you’re doing just deludes you more; there’s nothing to do. Enlightenment isn’t far away; it’s here. So there’s nowhere to go.” All the thoughts you have, none of them are true so stop trying to find the right thought. It can be a very powerful teaching. It’s because it’s so simple that it short-circuits the way someone views. Maybe it shifts their perception. If it shifts their perception, wonderful, unless they hold onto the teaching because you can have your perception shift but then you hold onto what helped get you there. Or worse than that, you don’t have a shift of consciousness; you just grab hold of a teaching. Then you just become another fundamentalist. There are as many non-dual fundamentalists as there are Christian and Hindu fundamentalists. I see this phenomenon in a lot of non-dual spirituality.
I see, as a teacher who is associated with non-dualist spirituality, that the non-dual teachings and the non-dual adherents often become fundamentalists. And they don’t know it, and they would never believe it because they think it’s an Eastern teaching or it’s more oriented in teachings of enlightenment and mysticism. But if you grab hold of it, it’s just another form of fundamentalism that distorts perception. It’s the gift of some teachings; they have a great gift to shift consciousness. But the more powerful and true the teaching it was, the easier it was to be misused. That’s the trick with very powerful teachings from any traditions. Because they are powerful, they are very easy to be misunderstood and misused. That’s what happens in a lot of non-dual circles, as well as any spiritual circle.
TS: I want to ask you one more question about thoughts and not believing our thoughts yet also the potentially beneficial power of certain thoughts. This has to do with ethics and positionality, if you will. In my exposure to many different kinds of non-dual teachings, it has been very beneficial to reveal to me how very judgmental I can be about all kinds of things. I’ve been a very opinionated person about all kinds of things from politics to environmental issues. It’s been very helpful to me to question. Maybe that is just a position I have, and often when I do, it is very helpful and often I can even argue the other side. They are all just different perspectives. I get that and it’s been very helpful. At the same time, I’ve felt a great concern that therefore we are throwing out all positions as equally valid and there’s no reason to express a strong opinion about all kinds of human rights violations or other crimes against humanity. So I think this non-duality has brought me this gift, which is to question my positionality, but it has brought with it a position to the people that I see as the non-dual fundamentalists, to use your language, which is now a question of, should I bother to vote? Should I express my opinion in a debate that involves planetary destruction? What do you have to say about that?
A: It’s a great question. It all comes back to me, when and if we can get to the view of truth, it’s just seeing things the way they are. That’s all enlightenment is: just seeing things the way they are, seeing things from an undistorted perception. When we get to that place when are actually seeing things from an undistorted perception, and then we’re not piling on even the teachings that helped us get here; we’re not superimposing the old teachings that maybe helped us get to that view but we’re actually viewing from what’s real and true itself. Certainly what I have found is totally naturally, without any ideas about the way things should be or need to be, that the truth itself, seeing things from our true nature, there is a natural sense of goodness that just arises in us. There’s a natural state of goodness. We see that natural goodness and it is in a certain sense that we actually care about the world we’re in. We care but not in the old way. In the old conditions, our caring means that we’re anxiety ridden by what I care about.
Let’s say that if I care about the environment then I am internally divided against the people who are destroying the environment. That’s one kind of caring that also breeds a certain division and has enemies. There’s a different kind of care, which I would suggest comes from truth itself, from our true nature, which is a caring without anxiety. This is very strange because it comes from that place where we know we feel and experience it all as well, even though everything is not well. It does not diminish that everything is not well. Everything feels totally well and it’s not well and we can see it both, simultaneously. And yet, at the point, there’s nothing in us that is divided and there is no resistance to what we see and to what we know, so there is a natural expression of, to use old language, the spiritual virtues of love, compassion, sympathy, selflessness. All these old spiritual virtues are actually rooted within the view from reality.
What a lot of people who have been on the spiritual path know is that those kinds of virtues have been incorporated into a very relative and conditioned sense of morality. What I always tell people is that if I’m going to be in ego-land, I’d rather be in egos that have a healthy sense of morality than with egos that have no sense of morality. But when the teachings tell us that the truth is beyond right and wrong, good an evil, that doesn’t mean what a conventional mind would think. The conventional mind would think, Well then, there is just no right and wrong. Right? Like a certain sort of anarchy or nothing really matters. Whether I hug you or shoot you, ultimately it doesn’t matter. That’s trying to understand a very high level of wisdom from a very low-level perspective. When you find yourself on the level of reality itself or find the perception coming from that place, you realize that this is beyond right and wrong, good and evil. Truth moves in particular ways. It doesn’t move in ways that divide, because it’s not divided.
For instance, when you wake up, and you have one of those good days, you don’t know why but you just woke up that way and you feel good inside. Do you notice that you treat people different? Not because you have a morality inside that says you should but because you feel good and so it changes the way you behave. That is what is trying to be pointed at when the teachings stay beyond right and wrong. When you feel good, you act good not because you should because you have right or wrong in your head but because you’re more in tune with your true nature. When you’re not divided, you don’t act divided. To me, that’s the ethic really, or the morality of enlightenment: when you’re not divided you don’t act divided. When you’re not divided, you have a whole lot of space in the consciousness to feel the world around you without going into division about it. You can see the suffering, the greed, the pain, and the starving children, without going into division. When there’s no division inside, there’s a response; something happens. You can’t know what it will be exactly, but there’s a relationship because you know that it’s all one and it’s all you and simultaneously the one is always in relationship with itself, so you’re always in relationship with what you perceive, without division. There is, in the way that I see it, a sort of enlightened ethic, but it’s not an ethic that’s imposed by thought but one that arises when you don’t feel and experience inner division.
TS: Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the Tibetan Buddhist teacher, has this phrase, “basic goodness,” to describe the nature of reality and that it informs everything. A lot of people have a lot of questions about that. How do we know that that is actually the nature of reality, that it is basically good? If you look around, it looks like it’s equally screwed up as it is good. This is your inner knowing?
A: That’s right. This is what I found. This is my experience. A big part of what helped open this view up was at a certain point, I didn’t care what I would find. When I found what was ultimately true and ultimately real, I literally said to myself, “I don’t care if it winds up being wonderful and goodness and heavenly or absolutely terrible and dastardly, and that ultimately reality is actually a very dark and sinister thing.” I didn’t care; I just had to find out. It just happens that reality itself is not divided and that’s where that sense of inner goodness comes from. When you don’t feel divided, there’s a goodness that comes out of you, whether one is enlightened or not. Any time someone doesn’t feel divided, there’s a goodness that comes out. The more they feel divided, the more division is expressed. So ultimately, our ultimate nature does have a real sense of goodness to it. But the reasons that these teachings have come about is because our mind wants to impose or it’s afraid to let go of its conditioned ideas of morality. That has been very confining to a lot of people. They are so busy trying to be the good, right person that they feel very confined. So, certain teachings come along and blow all of that out of the water, and maybe they get a different view.
What I found really interesting as a teacher is that even when you come into the “Ultimate View,” it doesn’t mean that your mind won’t start making mistranslations to translate that view in distorted ways. Your mind, if you’re not very careful and quiet, your mind will start making assumptions about the view, because that’s what our minds do; they box everything and turn it into a story. It’s very easy when everything is so open. There’s nowhere to go; there’s no doer. In all those old teachings, it’s very easy for the mind to start making assumptions about a new story. All the new stories are usually stories that are going to help the ego out so the ego doesn’t have to feel bad about anything, so it can do what it wants. Does that make sense?
This is really quite surprising the more I started to teach and I saw people that came with this very real experience and radical shifts of consciousness. Even though that would happen, it wouldn’t mean that their mind wouldn’t almost immediately start creating new distortions and new ways where even the remnants of ego start to hide behind. That view is actually very threatening to the ego because there’s nothing in it for the ego.
TS: You can’t take the position of your new discovery, even the position that you are position-less. There may be times when, as we were talking about, taking an ethical stance is exactly what our basic-nature goodness calls us to do in that moment, even though someone might say, “Wow, I thought you were some non-dualist practitioner. You look like you’re really taking a strong, hard line here.” It depends on what is happening on the inside.
AS: That’s it. And you know, in the tradition that I come from, Zen, they have koans, hundreds of classifications and different ones are trying to do different things. The interesting thing about the koans in Zen, some of them are meant to give you that first opening to reality, that first ah-ha of the ultimate. And then the more, as you go on, other koans are actually then trying to get you to operate within that view. And then other koans are trying to get you to see that you can’t always wisely operate and hold onto the very thing you realized. Some koans, you have to change your perception to respond adequately to it. When you develop the capacity to respond from one position, you get a question that requires you to respond from a totally different position. If it all goes right, the whole idea isn’t that you simply realize the Ultimate Reality; the idea is that your consciousness becomes so flexible and so lacking of self or ego that consciousness can move anywhere that is necessary. The situation dictates where consciousness moves and where action comes from, where the response to any moment comes from. In order to have that happen, every view and the grasp you have on it has to be let go. The view doesn’t have to be let go of but the grasp does.
Like the Buddha said, “What did you attain through supreme enlightenment?” He said, “I obtained absolutely nothing through unexcelled enlightenment,” which meant: There is nothing there for me to hold onto, even the Absolute view, even enlightenment I could not hold onto as a new, rarefied position. There was nothing that was attained when everything was let go of, the ego – that which would hold onto anything, even the Absolute- was let go of. Then there is something in us that just sort of moved very quickly to the appropriate response and it may be that there’s no right or wrong or a quick position that seems very much like right or wrong and everything in between. So everything becomes open to us. Everything. I think that’s the thing that is often missing in some of the non-dual experiences that people have from many different traditions . . . is what is often not spoken of, as it says in one of the Zen sutras: to realize that the Absolute is not in enlightenment.
When people realize the Absolute, just that last little bit of ego says, That’s it, now I’ve got it. This is what’s true. That sutra reminds you, No. That’s significant but don’t hold onto it. Otherwise, your realization of the Absolute just becomes another distortion. Then you’re kind of left very empty-handed. But not empty-handed in the sense that you become incapable of response or impotent to maneuver in life or even to take certain positions; you become empty-handed in you that there is no resistance in you to the reality moving the way it wants. It naturally will move.
TS: Thank you.
You’ve been listening to a conversation with Adyashanti. Adya, as he is known by friends and students, is one of my favorite student teachers. He works with an organization called The Open Gate Sangha, and he’s the author of a book called The End of Your World: Uncensored Straight Talk on the Nature of Enlightenment. This book is also an audio learning series available through Soundstrue.com. We also published a book/ CD with Adya on True Meditation and an audio learning series on Spontaneous Awakening. All of these are available at Soundstrue.com
Many Voices. One Journey. Soundstrue.com.