Where the Rubber Hits the Road: Sage Advice In Unwise Times

The American-born master, Adyashanti, on staying awake when the going gets rough

Posted May 30, 2017

Adyashanti is among the most gifted and original spiritual teachers practicing in the world today. Though trained in Zen Buddhism, Adyashanti has since shed the trappings of traditional dharma, and developed a non secular, lingo-free, forward-looking teaching all his own, delivered in his unpretentious, California-guy style. He teaches with his wife Mukti throughout northwest America and Europe, and offers weekend intensives, silent retreats and a live, internet radio broadcast through his organization, Open Gate Sangha (http://www.opengatesangha.org/). Adyashanti is the author of many books, including The Way of Liberation, Falling into Grace, True Meditation, The End of Your World, and Resurrecting Jesus. We recently spoke about the post-election blues, Jesus's temper, and how to live wisely in unwise times.  

Mark Matousek: Since the election, you've said that, “This is where the rubber hits the road.” What do mean by that, spiritually speaking?

Adyashanti: This is where we find out the depth of our own wisdom, peace and clarity. It’s relatively easy to feel balanced when we’re left alone on our meditation cushion, but this is one of those moments when many people are triggered by what has occurred and what is continuing to occur. It holds a mirror up to each of us and we get to ask ourselves what the depth of our realizations are. What would it mean to bring that depth into play, to respond from the deepest place within us?

MM: What practices do you recommend for times when we are feeling triggered?

A: This first thing I recommend is to look within and ask: “What would it be like if I was to respond to this?” I don’t mean simply in terms of what we do, but how we emotionally react to it. Ask yourself: “What would it be like if I related to what’s happening from the most centered place I know?” When something happens and we feel challenged in a big way, this kind of question becomes really relevant. Just asking the question provides a mirror to see where we are coming from, and see if we are afraid or upset. Whatever the emotion might be.

Asking those questions and not immediately answering, allows our body to respond, rather than our mind. Then, it can help people reconnect, especially if we have done some sort of contemplative practice, whether it’s meditation or prayer. There are many means of accessing our depth.

MM: I know many spiritual seekers who are realizing how judgmental they are, themselves.  How much like the "other" they actually are.

A: Yes.  We get to see how easy it is to go into a judgmental place. It’s holding up a mirror, and this is the challenge for a lot of people, including myself. Intellectually, I can understand how the current president might appeal to people who do not feel like they’ve been heard politically or given a voice, but that’s quite different from being able to emotionally understand it. A lot of people are having a real challenge with this. Even those who try to be reflective and see where their minds go into judgement when they get confused, or in a negative state. That’s a real disconnect for a lot of people, getting it intellectually, yet having a hard time understanding it in terms of a feeling. That’s when we get the more reactive parts of our structure triggered and a lot of judgment arises.

MM: The moment of recognizing the "other" in oneself is a moment of spiritual insight, at least. 

A: Absolutely. From a spiritual development point of view, it’s humbling when we see that we can go into judgement and anger. A lot of people are afraid, and wonder if they can go into that fear without reacting first.

MM: Is there a place for outrage in spiritual life?  

A: There’s the wise and unwise version of any emotion, even in spiritual life. If we look at the life of Jesus, there were times when he could be really angry. However, when we get angry, we stop thinking clearly, we get cloudy. It’s harder for us to see clearly. But there’s also a kind of anger that can actually produce clarity if it’s not conflicted.

Spiritually, we can get very hung up thinking there’s a whole list of emotions we’re not supposed to feel. What we need to look at is whether the emotion is coming from a conflicted space. In other words, we can disagree with something, use our discrimination and say, “That doesn’t sound true,” or “I don’t feel like I’m being talked to in an honest way.” We can see that from a very clear place, even with emotion behind it. Or we can see those things and go into resistance and drop into fear. Then anger arises, turns into rage, and we get emotional and cloudy.

It’s very important that we don’t make emotions wrong, because then we can work with them. If we judge them and make them wrong, we have conflict.

MM: And then whatever positive action that might arise from that anger becomes clouded as well.

A: Right. When I talk to activists, I try to emphasize the importance of this. Instead of getting totally hooked into what you’re against, pay more attention to what you’re for. When we’re in a negative place it clouds our thinking and diminishes the power of the impact we can have.

Martin Luther King used to emphasize this a lot and Gandhi used to say, “I’m not against the British, I’m for Indian rule.” So he was trying to make the point of putting your energy into what you’re for. That’s a lot more effective and then you’re not adding to the energy of conflict that tends to swirl around political kinds of issues.

MM: That makes sense. What is the relationship between psychology and spirituality? Do you find there are problems that can only be addressed through something like therapy, rather than spiritual practice?

A: Spirituality and psychology are not in the same band of consciousness, but they are certainly related. Over the last seven or eight years, I’ve become more prone to recognizing that a certain kind of issue would be dealt with much more effectively with a good therapist and have recommended that to my students. This is especially true when it comes to things like early childhood trauma.

Like anything in life, you’re best served in seeing someone who has expertise in what you’re experiencing, although most any spiritual teacher will deal with these kinds of issues because that’s what will come up. But most spiritual teachers aren’t specifically trained around trauma issues. The more honest we can be about that, the more we are able to help others. Also, from a practical point of view, you can go to a therapist who can be with you in a committed way over a long period of time. Most spiritual teachers might be able to meet with an individual, but you’re not going to get anywhere near the same kind of attention. The only thing that’s relevant to me is what works.

I’ve joked with friends about this, saying I would love for the vast majority of people who come see me to have spent two or three years in therapy. (laughs) This would make my job a whole lot easier. We can have great spiritual leaps and insights, we can even awaken without having our psychological act together, which is good news. But just because you awaken doesn’t mean you’re going to get your psychological baggage taken care of.

MM: I’ve known and worked with quite a few teachers and none of them was free of neurosis.  

A: There are many powerful means of opening our consciousness to transcendent dimensions, so it’s very easy to skip over our psychological material and when we have these transcendent moments, we feel as if all our psychological difficulties have disappeared. But very rarely does it remain that way. Essentially, in these powerful spiritual moments, we’ve transcended the personal domain, but that doesn’t mean that what we’ve transcended has been essentially changed. At some point our conflicts boomerang back with unresolved psychological material. This can be confusing and disappointing because a lot of people hope that if they just have the right spiritual experience, that all of the psychological conflict will mysteriously disappear. Sometimes a huge amount of it will, but you never know how much and it really differs from one person to the next.

MM: Yes, and the desire to escape—what we call leap frogging—can be such an insidious thing in spiritual life. What feels like transcendence can be escapism, without actually transforming the darker materials.

A: Yes, and when working with dark material, you have to be willing to not transcend it, but to stay with it, to stay in it. When people have access to a more transcendent domain, if they’re still dealing with a difficult piece of their psychology, I’ll counsel them not to go to that transcendent place because they will feel better for a moment or an hour or a day, but they clearly aren’t solving a particular part of their psychology. They have to temporarily withhold themselves from going to a deeper dimension of wisdom so that they can really look at their conflict. Explore it and try to see within its domain. It takes a lot of honesty and humility to come to grips with the fact that we are these very complex beings and we exist on many levels of consciousness at the same time.

MM: Enlightenment is a misunderstood word, I've found.  Like the word mysticism. What are some of the misunderstandings around enlightenment that you have come up against?

A: I call it the sales pitch of enlightenment. When you’re enlightened you’ll be in some eternal state of bliss and it will be like having an unending orgasm. Or this idea that when you have an enlightenment experience it will immediately solve any problem you have. Or that enlightened people are treated more kindly by the universe and don’t have the challenges of other people. The list goes on and on, in a kind of myth-making way.

I hate simplistic descriptions, but basically, enlightenment shows the unity of all existence. It shows by our own experience, that we are much more and much less than we ever imagined. More in the sense that we’re not defined or contained within the ego structure, much less because our essential nature really has nothing to grasp; there’s nothing about it to grasp on to. Our eyes can’t turn and grab hold of themselves, our ears can hear sounds but they can’t hear themselves, and so it goes. Much more and much less.

You notice that this leaves a whole lot out of the picture. Traditionally, up until recently, some of our deeper personal issues around relationships, sexuality, power and money, were dealt with spiritually by not dealing with them. For example: with boys, sexuality is a big issue, so just be celibate. Money can be very corrupting, so certain monastics were not allowed to deal with it. It  was an attempt to deal with troubling aspects of what it is to be human by refusing to engage.

I think we’ve come to see that it’s not a very effective way. I think that’s why, in the ’60s and ’70s, so many Eastern teachers and gurus coming to the West had tremendous falls from grace. I don’t think they had terrible intentions from the beginning, or that they were charlatans, but they came out of these systems where they were relatively protected. Maybe they were celibate, or someone else dealt with money. Power issues were dealt with by a bigger organization and all of a sudden, when they are in America, all of those boundaries and safeguards were taken away. A lot of them just hadn’t developed those parts of themselves that would allow them to deal with those things effectively.

We’re talking about people who probably had a significant degree of realization, so each of us would be well-served by having some humility around these issues and realizing that we can’t just ignore them as ways of dealing with them. They are part of human development. We need to have at least some sort of basic competency around these powerful forces in all of our lives.

MM: You’re saying that enlightenment is a process that goes on and on. There's no destination, no end to it.

A: One of the most common misunderstandings is the idea that enlightenment is crossing a cosmic finish line. It’s kind of a paradox, from a strictly experiential point of view. Touching on the nature of our absolute reality always feels whole and complete and total. It’s beautiful but it can also be deceiving because that sense of wholeness and completeness isn’t evolving. On the other hand, the changeless is constantly changing and having a different experience of itself. In our minds, paradoxes don’t sit comfortably, but in experiences, we come to experience all of this. Everything is inherently complete and yet within that, something seems to always and forever be completing itself. There is an obviousness to that in direct experience, but even if we’ve experienced it, our minds are more comfortable putting it in nice little categories.

MM: Beautiful. One last question. What would you say to our current president if you had ten minutes alone with him?

ADYASHANTI: That’s a great question but I’m not sure. My instinct is that it would be the same as when I talk to most people. I would want to understand him better if it’s possible for me to do so. Because what my work over these past decades has shown me is that for all of us, whatever our behavior is, everything is coming out of something else. There are reasons for the way we behave, reasons for the way anyone behaves. The reasons may be justified or not.

Everybody and everything has a story and we are much better at dealing with each other when we have some intuitive or felt sense of that. Even unskilled actions generally come from a life of conflict and pain. That doesn’t mean it gets anybody off the hook. I would be interested to know the story that leads him to move in the world the way he does. Not that he would probably tell me anything.

I wouldn’t try to change him. There are plenty of people who want to do that and it doesn’t seem to be happening. Nor do I assume that I necessarily know how someone should be changed. I tend to only respond to how they might want to. I don’t go in with preconceived ideas of how people would be. I think he’s holding up a mirror to some American traits that I’ve seen within the collective psyche of this country for a very long time. Those traits are blown up in a very big version in this president. He’s holding up a mirror to all of us, to our whole culture. A mirror that says, “Hey look, see.”  

It’s important as a culture to see what’s being reflected back to us, but it’s important that people respond in a way that feels empowering to them.