What I learned from all my years of Zen training is that the essence of spirituality is attention and intention. After all, spirituality is the practice of perceiving the spirit of things, meaning the essence or inner reality of things, whether that be one’s own essence, or the essence of life, or the essence of a teacup. They are all the same. There is also the spirit, or essence, of an action or activity. That is why in Zen they talk of “the Zen of tea drinking,” or of flower arranging, or of sweeping the porch. What they mean when they refer to “the Zen of” a particular activity is to point out the selfless, embodied, and enlightened expression of that activity. Any truly enlightened action has four characteristics: selflessness, spontaneity, clarity, and wholeness.
The practice of attention (or mindfulness as it is often referred to in spiritual circles), is a way of redirecting attention away from the habitual focus on one’s inner narrative, and placing it instead on precisely what one is doing, on the nonconceptual nature of immediate experience and perception. Without this shift of attention—from concept to immediate experience and perception—spirituality tends to degrade into magical thinking, fantasy, and/or fanaticism. It is only by redirecting attention away from the surface level of the mind’s narrative, and towards the pure immediacy of the present, that we can break the trance of ego-identification and fall into conscious connection with our true nature. Attention is the secret elixir that one is working with in all spiritual awakening practices.
During my years as a Zen student I also learned the importance of intention. Intention has to do with what you are aiming at, and what your life-orienting values are. That is why when I first meet someone coming to me as a student, I ask them, “exactly why are you here and what do you want?” Such a direct question will often take people by surprise, which is good. When I can surprise someone a little, I know I have their attention, which is exactly what I want to elicit with such a question. Until there is great burning attention, we cannot truly begin. And when there is great attention, we then need to aim it. We need to employ intention in order to direct attention.
The intention that I am really talking about is not so much focused on what you want, but rather on what you are being inwardly called to. A spiritual journey is a calling. It is something initiated from somewhere beyond the ego, from a depth within the psyche that the ego has no access to on its own. Our spiritual journey will take as much or as little time as it needs to take. Our egos have no say in the matter at all. The ego’s part to play is to respond wholeheartedly (devotedly, even) to the calling of our true nature when it comes. And the ego must remain devoted to true nature, for if the ego tries to possess spiritual breakthroughs, or aggrandize itself with spiritual attainment, it will one day be surprised to discover that it has only ever been worshiping itself.
Our spiritual intention (that which we aim at and are devoted to) is not something that we, as egos, create. It is a calling, or instinct, that the ego receives. It is not a transactional calling where you give something expecting to get something in return. It is a calling to that which is undivided, whole, timeless, sacred, and beautiful. . . for its own sake. It is a call received by the ego, to discover and return to its source. It is also a call from our formless true nature to embody itself in, and as, the form of this very human life, as consciously as possible.
When dedicated attention and inspired intention work together as a whole, our spiritual practice will naturally acquire depth and reveal great wisdom. May our wisdom always be held in the great heart of compassion and love.
How strange it is to look deeply into one’s true nature. We can all state with certainty, “I am.” That’s the starting point—not “I am this or that,” but simply “I am.” We have all been taught to add onto this sense of “I am” various defining characteristics and evaluations. But these are secondary at best, a collection of conditioned conclusions and evaluations, most of which were inherited from the people and the world around us; put simply, they are nonessential. The “I am” is essential to being self-conscious; it is the quintessential articulation and confession of self-consciousness itself. Everything that gets added unto this primary sense of “I am” obscures one’s essential nature.
Another way to approach the “I am” sense is to simply attend to your immediate sense of being. This is not as simple as it sounds because we are so accustomed to thinking about our experience rather than simply experiencing our experience. This is exactly where good spiritual practice comes in. The essence of any good spiritual practice is to focus on direct experience rather than on what we think about the experience. To focus on the immediate sense of “I am” devoid of all interpretations and evaluations is itself a powerful spiritual practice. The immediate sense of “I am” is like being a simple conscious presence, prior to being a someone or something with a history in time. In fact, with a little practice and willingness to let go of clinging to one’s familiar identity, this simple and immediate sense of “I am” will reveal itself to be the same underlying conscious presence as all other conscious beings.
This then forms the basis of a transformed relationship with all beings, where our essential sameness becomes the ground of our relatedness with others, even as we have a newfound respect and appreciation for our human differences. The universal “I am” wears an infinite variety of masks that we human beings call our personality. But connecting with the universal “I am” in oneself and in other beings allows us to connect from a universal and essential basis, rather than from being exclusively entranced by surface appearances and conditioned reactions.
The “I am” is a doorway into the essential, the universal, and the sacred. To gain entry into that doorway requires us to step into the realm of not knowing—which is simply to say that we must unknow, or temporarily suspend, everything that we think that we know about ourselves. We must enter into a state of innocent unknowing just prior to all egocentric identification. We must not only think about doing this, or imagine doing it—we must actually do it! We must let go and not know who or what we are. Then, and only then, can we directly sense into the “I am,” the conscious presence which pervades any and all perceptions and experiences. Then we dwell as that conscious presence. The rest of the unfolding will happen by itself, in its own time. Patient persistence is the key.
Eventually, even the “I am” sense will fall away . . . and self-consciousness will dissolve into its source. But for now, let’s not define this source, for there is no substance to the source to grasp hold of. Everywhere the supreme reality is on display, but nowhere can it be grasped. Follow the “I am” to its source, to that dark light that sees but cannot be seen, and knows but cannot be known. When the eye that never sleeps awakens—yes, this is a contradiction to the intellect—the dharma wheel of enlightenment turns everywhere. This, at least, is how it feels and has always felt.
A truly spiritual life is a life dedicated to a series of self-transcending commitments. By self-transcending I do not mean self-denying or self-negating, I mean something that is all-inclusive and not ego driven. I also mean something that is for the benefit of all beings. But essentially self-transcending commitments are doorways into all-inclusive reality, the reality of our true nature that is the fabric of our actual existence. In a sense, spiritual practice is the practice of helping true nature realize itself and embody itself as each of our lives as consciously as possible.
I do not intend this to be understood in a theoretical way, because to say that our practice is the practice of helping true nature realize itself is more of a poetic statement. It is something that you feel and intuit more than something that you believe or hold as a concrete fact. It is a way of understanding and approaching spirituality and spiritual practice from a broad and non-egocentric perspective. True nature is our true nature, and it is also something that we are serving and helping, and it is also serving and helping each of us as well. This is the paradox of spiritual practice that is so important to understand. But this understanding can only grow out of practice like a flower grows out of the ground. We cannot truly understand this paradox abstractly in our conceptual mind, it only grows out of the soil of committed spiritual practice. Which is to say that we must do it in order to understand it. Most things in life are like this, you must do them in order to understand them.
You cannot understand what an apple tastes like unless you eat an apple, or what it feels like to create music unless you are a musician, or what if feels like to give birth to a baby until you actually give birth. There is an old saying that expresses this idea in a different way. It says, “Do not judge someone until you walk a mile in their shoes.” I think that our world would be a much kinder and loving place if we all put this into practice. Such a practice is a good example of a self-transcending commitment. It is a good spiritual practice because it is not egocentric, it is wisdom born of actual human experience. This is something that we need to remember, wisdom is always and only born of non-egocentric human experience. Wisdom is not an abstraction, is not a belief, opinion, or reaction; it is born of experience.
Spiritual practice is so important because it is rooted in experience, meaning that it is something that you do. It is a commitment to doing something rather than merely thinking and conceptualizing. This is why we meditate and bring great awareness to each moment of our lives, and question our beliefs, and inquire, and seek to embody our understanding within the context of our daily lives. It is exacting, humbling, joyous and liberating spiritual practice. It is true nature waking up to itself and embodying itself as this very life. It is who and what we are, and it is also what we serve moment to moment through our commitment to being as awake and loving as we can. My teacher said that we are always being, and always becoming Buddha. This is true wisdom, not too attached to always and already being, and not too attached to always becoming. To experience this is to be like an eternal stable mountain that flows like water nourishing the entire earth. This to me is what the spiritual life is.
When we are engaging in spiritual practice from the viewpoint of boundless reality, there is no subject and object, no “me” seeking something from practice, and no seeking outside of oneself or outside of the present. I’m stating this in negative terms, but only for the purpose of countering how the ego engages in spiritual practice. The ego’s strategic viewpoint serves as a means of achieving something outside of, or beyond, what is presently given in each moment. Not that the egocentric view of spiritual practice is necessarily wrong, but it is limited and bound by the dualistic outlook that defines its perspective.
I vividly remember being bound by just this sort of dualistic attitude in the early years of my spiritual quest. I very much saw my spiritual practice as a means to an end: namely, to achieve enlightenment. Unbeknownst to me at the time, this strategy simply served to continue to separate me from what I was seeking. As if I were sprinting to the finish line at the end of a marathon, but the faster I sprinted, the faster the finish line receded away from me. It was not until I had thoroughly exhausted myself with my efforts to the point of total collapse, that I realized the elusive goal of awakening was not only exceedingly near, it was exactly no distance away from me at all. In fact, it was the very foundation of my being, and the foundation of all beings.
The awakened condition is not something to be achieved, found, or grasped. It is our natural condition from the very beginning. The reason that we do not experience it is because it is not hidden—which is a very strange idea, but nonetheless true. We also do not experience it because we are simply too identified with and beholden to the egocentric perspective. We therefore engage in spiritual practice from that perspective, even though it is the sole obstruction to the awakening for which we strive. Awakening is not a thing to be perceived—rather, it is clear perception itself. And it is not attained by the ego; it is clear perception becoming conscious of itself.
From the mature ego’s perspective, we are helping true nature realize itself, rather than trying to attain it for ourselves as egos. However, ultimately we are true nature realizing itself in a deeper and deeper way, and in a profoundly human way.
In order to help this realization, our spiritual practice must be very embodied, very earthy and natural. For example, when we meditate, we sit down with our body, reconnect, and bring our mind back to the immediate and concrete aspects of our experience: our posture, our breath, and our senses. These are the material facts of embodied existence, they are not theoretical, abstract or imagined.
The ego is a product of the mind, and it lives predominately in the mind, and in the emotions that are created by the mind’s interpretation of events. Although the ego is profoundly attached to its identification with the body, it is not actually very conscious of the body, as the body is prior to the ego’s interpretations. So even though the ego is profoundly attached to the body, and feels contained within its confines, it lives in a rather disembodied state. A state created and maintained by its attachment to, and identification with, thoughts, ideas, memories, and opinions. And if we are not very careful, the ego will be driving our spiritual practice and doing so within the very limited confines of its personal agenda. Whereas a truly embodied spiritual practice will seek to be connected with the immediate and concrete facts of existence as they exist prior to the ego’s interpretations, desires and demands.
There is a profound paradox that you may have noticed in this teaching. The best way to go beyond identification with the body and the ego, is to attend to the body by being mindfully present to the direct and immediate experience of material existence as it is prior to the ego’s interpretations. This will naturally lead us to developing more and more subtle perception until we can perceive the nondual nature of body, mind, and spirit. Our true nature makes no distinction between the material and the immaterial, between consciousness and the empirical world. To our true nature, these distinctions that the human mind makes are at best sometimes useful, but never ultimately real.
Which is simply to say that there is more dharma in a single leaf on a tree than in all the sutras ever written. There is indeed a reality beyond all material form, but it is on full display in each and every fall of the breath, or heartbeat, or grain of sand on the beach. The world’s greatest spiritual teachings are simply ways of articulating the great reality that lies fully embodied right before our very eyes.
Compassionate Regard for the World (Two Q&A from Sacred Inquiry)
Excerpted from Adya’s book, Sacred Inquiry
Compassionate Regard for the World
Be True to What Inspires You
Q: Is it necessary to be in the social world to manifest redeeming love? I have experienced many awakenings during my life, starting at ten years old. I am now seventy. All my life I have been a very dedicated intuitive painter, and painting has led me to my spiritual openings. Now I am not too healthy, so painting is mostly what I do, apart from listening to you. Am I missing something crucial?
A: Love can take an infinite variety of forms—simply to be a loving presence in the world is quite enough. No matter what we are doing or not doing, our state of consciousness affects the whole collective consciousness. Some people will be quite called to active participation in the world, while others will not. There is no right or wrong in it—we are all simply who we are. Each life is unique, and each life contributes simply by being what it is.
When I look at great art, I am inspired and reminded of the sacredness of existence. Michelangelo has been dead for hundreds of years, but he lives and inspires me greatly in his works of art. Our very existence is our contribution to life, no matter what we do or do not do. We are all the products of the whole of existence! Be true to what inspires you; that is your contribution.
I wish you great happiness and health.
What the World Really Needs
Q: I know directly and profoundly that I am nothing. And from that knowing it’s clear, at least intellectually and maybe more deeply, that the multiplicity of appearance is an expression of nothingness. But I still get caught in multiplicity, especially in anger and despair over the havoc we are causing on the planet. It seems to me that until I can hold the facts of resource depletion, species extinction, and climate change in the space of nothingness, the process of awakening is incomplete.
Do I accept that the humanity in me will always be outraged about these things and that there can simultaneously be a knowing of the nothingness of it? Or is there a “place” where there is only abiding in the nothingness of multiplicity? How can I work with this incompleteness and know that I am everything in the way Nisargadatta did?
A: So many people are outraged at the senseless way that we treat each other and this amazing planet that we find ourselves on. Does that outrage solve the immense problems of humanity, or does it fuel them? It seems to me that the world does not need any more outrage than it already has. It does, though, desperately need more love put into action. Perhaps your feelings of outrage are actually originating in a love that you have not yet fully acknowledged and acted upon. Perhaps if you saw how much you truly care and love, and got on with expressing that as best you could, you would not feel outraged and afraid. Love denied turns to anger. Love expressed creates the space and conditions where more love can flower. Love isn’t just a feeling—it is an act of courage.
Let’s remember why we’re here at retreat: for this amazing opportunity to really look into the core of our own existence, the core of life itself that is so easy to overlook. It’s so easy not to pay attention to it, because it’s not noisy and it’s not clamoring for attention like all the other aspects of the human mind. Egoic consciousness is always pretending to be the most important thing that is happening.
And yet there’s this thread, this sense of something other than, deeper than, more real than, more essential than this scattered and divided noise that so many human beings live in, in their minds. And right in the midst of all that, there is a presence, there is an awareness, an unconditioned awareness, an unconditioned consciousness. Right in the middle of this conditioned mind, conditioned consciousness, is this shining, unconditioned essence. Essence doesn’t mean a little part hidden somewhere in us, the little teeny kernel of essence. Essence means the totality, the whole thing. Essence means the truth of you as opposed to the untruth of you.
Essence isn’t a small thing, essence is an immense thing. The essence of you is everything you ever see, taste, touch, and experience. Everywhere you go, every step you take, every breath you take is actually happening by the essence, of the essence, in the essence, and to the essence. All the rest is noise and chatter.
So we come here to give our attention, our affection, our time. Our most highly prized commodity is our time. Anything or anyone you give your time to shows immediately what is most important. And I want to remind everyone that what you really are, what the person next to you is, what the children in Africa scraping up the little grains of rice are, this timeless essence, is not hidden. It’s not hidden at all. It’s in plain view. Everywhere you look, that’s the essence. And the mind would say, “Where? Where? I don’t see it. All I see is a car, a billboard, a tree, the person in front of me, the funny man on the stage. Where is this essence?”
It’s easy to grasp for it, isn’t it? “Where is it? What is it? I want to understand it. I want to know about it. How can it work for me? How can I utilize it?” But it doesn’t come upon us through the grasping of it, through the striving for it, and through the struggling for it. There’s no merit gained through wasted effort, through excess struggle. There are no merit points for the people who drove themselves the craziest along the way to self-realization. For most people it’s so obscure that it seems very intuitive to grasp and to struggle instead of relaxing, not grasping, letting something come to you, letting the truth of your being reveal itself to you on its terms, in its way, letting it happen.
It will happen. It’s always happening. It’s always trying to show itself.
Excerpted from Resurrecting Jesus: Embodying the Spirit of a Revolutionary Mystic, published by Sounds True
The Meaning of the Virgin Birth
Theologically, the story of the virgin birth suggests that Jesus descended down to earth from a heavenly state. What is the heavenly state? It is a state that is outside of time. It is a breaking through into eternity. Now, you may have experienced moments up something akin to the heavenly state. There are moments in life when, spontaneously, a door in your consciousness opens and suddenly you see everything from a very different perspective. The doors of perception open and life suddenly takes on the sense of tremendous meaning, even if you can’t communicate what that meaning is. The heavenly state is the context of eternity in which the world resides.
Each human being experiences such moments, in which the doors of eternity part—if only a crack—and you were filled with a sense of awe and joy. When you connect with the infinite mystery of being, you sense the immensity of the potential that’s within it. So this descent from the heavenly state into the world of time and space is very much tied to these moments where our perception opens and we are connected with the transcendent reality.
In the Jesus story, the virgin birth is that moment when the door cracks open and the spirit of Jesus comes down from the eternal. We should always remember that Jesus represents eternal being, that dimension of our own being that is beyond time and space, beyond what we can see and think about and touch. From that perspective, what does it mean that Jesus descends straight from heaven? This is eternal, divine being breaking through the latticework of time—breaking through the structures of our minds, breaking through our belief systems and entering into our consciousness.
Now, Jesus is born of a virgin. What does this virgin birth represent? This image is telling us that Jesus is not born of the pairs of opposites. His is a birth straight from heaven, and heaven is eternal wholeness. The virgin birth of Jesus represents heaven taking physical form here on earth. The birth of your physical form is the product of your mother and father, which are the pairs of opposites. But your deeper nature is eternal and not born from the pairs of opposites. It is timeless, and it is birthed into time and space as soon as you have a human incarnation. So there you are, a human being filled with the mystery of eternal being, filled with the radiance of spirit.
This is what the virgin birth signifies: time and space being opened up and eternity being embodied as a human being. This is you and I, yet we don’t know it. We are eternal, divine beings manifested here and now in our humanity as a particular human being. Our human form comes from the pairs of opposites. The body that feels, the mind that thinks all this comes from the pairs of opposites. Your mother and father got together and produced a baby, a beautiful, incarnated being, and that being is filled and animated by the vitality of divine being. That is the beauty of what the virgin birth signifies if you can read the metaphor.
Q: My question is regarding the welfare of all beings (or compassion) being a part of authentic spiritual impulse or the intention behind entering into spirituality.
My earlier spiritual training had a strong emphasis on service, and service as a path for realization. As I became more serious about spirituality, there was a strong urge to serve. But unknowingly, my ego took over and created an image of I have to serve. When I ventured into full-time service, my ego took a heavy beating, and I saw my whole image of I have to serve shatter in front of me. That was the point when I got introduced to your teachings, and it has helped me to lift myself up.
Based on what I understood from your teachings, the passion or desire for truth is the authentic spiritual impulse, and compassion, feeling for the welfare of the world, peace, etc., would just be byproducts of the true realization. Now I am confused when you bring up compassion and the welfare of the world as part of the authentic spiritual impulse.
A: There is no way to separate truth from the welfare of all, since the revelation of truth reveals that we are the world, the world is us. The whole universe is contained within you. That is not just transcendent truth; it is also experienced as boundless love and compassion. What I’m getting at here is our spiritual motivation. Love for all is an aspect of our true being. If we do not access this, we remain essentially self-centered. Wisdom without love can be callous and harsh. Truth and love are simply two sides of the same coin—they cannot be separated.
I have met many people who have had a partial awakening. They realize some profound truth, but their heart is still essentially closed. They are half awake, and therefore essentially self-centered. This same phenomenon can happen when someone awakens to boundless love but not deep wisdom. Either way, it is like hopping around on one leg. I think it both wise and natural to include all beings within our spiritual motivations, as well as our more personal motivations.
Of course we can build more spiritual-appearing egos around the identity of being selfless and a servant of the good—such identities are as unreal as any other. Nonetheless, an altruistic attitude (without the accompanying ego identity) is conducive to realization and a benefit for all.
The Enlightened View
Q: I find it fairly easy to experience the extraordinary sacredness of the moment when drinking a cup of tea, to be aware of the inherent selflessness of myself when I am alone. The trouble happens when I am confronted with other people’s anger, or pain, or even violence. So many of us in this world live in unstable situations. How do we remain in the moment? How do we experience the extraordinariness of these moments? How do we continue to act from a place of stillness when we are in overwhelming situations occurring in objective reality? How do I act from grace when I see someone I love tangled in their own limiting beliefs? In these situations, I find it very difficult not to react in habitual, often traumatized ways.
A: This is a big and important question, and beyond my ability to answer in the space of an email. I will, however, attempt to make a start. Spirituality is, of course, about much more than having moments of sacredness when in supportive and non-challenging environments, as nice and as enriching as these moments can be. The “goal” (if I may use such a word) of spirituality is to be realized, clear, and fearless enough to meet and respond to the tremendous challenges of life from a revolutionary perspective.
Someone like Jesus had far from an easy life. It was not a life predominately defined by resting in the bliss of being, but of engaging with the sorrows of life from a revolutionary standpoint of wisdom, love, and fearlessness. Being rooted in what he called the kingdom, or the enlightened view, was not for him an end in itself, but rather an inner condition from which to engage with the challenges of life.
To embody any degree of realization requires us to uncover and expose those remaining mental and emotional fixations that inhibit the spontaneous movement of wisdom and love within our lives. For most, this is no small task. It all starts by taking full responsibility for our own inner and outer lives, and noticing the ways in which our own fear, judgment, resentment, and confusion cloud our ability to respond to the challenges of life in a wise and appropriate way.
It has been my observation that many people involved in spirituality are waiting for some great spiritual experience to make everything in their lives clear and solve all of their problems for them. This is a bit of an overstatement but not all that uncommon to varying degrees. Instead of trying to remain in a state of stillness, or peace, or any other state when dealing with the challenges of life, we are better served by seeking to act and respond with wisdom, clarity, and openheartedness.
I suppose that the most direct answer to your question is to go deeper and investigate the causes of fear, anger, jealousy, and control within yourself. Then you will find it more obvious how to respond to these qualities when dealing with others. There is simply no other option than to uproot the causes of human suffering within ourselves if we are to manifest the incredible potential for wisdom and love that lie at the core of our being.
You are the world, the world is you. Now let’s all act on it. And by doing so, we become more and more clear, more wise, and more loving. It is not always easy, but it is the only thing worth doing. And it’s up to each of us to do it.
Excerpted from the book “Sacred Inquiry: Questions That Can Transform Your Life”
Life is an enigma spread across a landscape of nearly unimaginable unknowns. The immense terrain that even a single human life traverses is inconceivable. And yet here you are, right in the middle of navigating, and being navigated by, the great totality of life. This naturally and unavoidably gives rise to all manner of questions: Who am I? What is life? What is the meaning of life? What is the fundamental nature of reality? What is God, if there is a God? These existential questions live just below the surface of our painful habit of denying entry to the essential mystery of existence, and therefore subvert the one thing that has the capacity to transform human consciousness and unlock potential few dare to even imagine.
What makes sacred inquiry sacred? We can, after all, inquire simply as a means of gathering information, much like we do as schoolchildren. And while gathering and learning information is useful and even necessary, it is not a sacred act in and of itself. What makes inquiry sacred is that it is primarily a way of plunging consciousness into itself, into the hidden dimensions of the psyche which remain in darkness until we make an intentional effort to follow our questions beyond the periphery between the known and the infinite unknown. In sacred inquiry we are looking to evoke experiential insight and wisdom, not merely to collect more information or form yet more beliefs with which to delude ourselves.
Sacred inquiry is not simply about finding simplistic answers to life’s big questions; it is about transforming our consciousness so that we are living the answers, not simply knowing them as pieces of information. The state of our consciousness determines our entire experience of being, as well as what we are capable of knowing and perceiving. Sacred inquiry aims at the transformation of consciousness, for consciousness is perhaps the biggest mystery of all. And yet we take consciousness for granted, rarely stopping to notice or acknowledge, much less appreciate, that consciousness is the one indispensable ingredient in our entire experience of being. Contrary to our most basic human assumption, we are not human beings who possess consciousness—we are consciousness having a very human experience, with all the ups and downs, triumphs and tragedies that this entails. . . .
We are each an aperture through which the world knows and experiences itself. Each person embodies the infinite nature of life and consciousness within the finite form of their particular human life. Our questions are life’s questions, and our spiritual instinct toward connection and freedom are life’s deeper instincts. You and I, and the entirety of existence and beyond, comprise a single spectrum of being. This is to say that the words you, I, and existence refer to different perspectives within the totality of consciousness. And if conscious life is anything, it is naturally curious and questioning. Our questions—about ourselves and each other, about life and death, and about whether there is something that can rightly be called sacred—belong not only, or even primarily, to each of us. These questions belong to the immensity of life and the consciousness which we are each individual embodiments of. Your big life questions belong simultaneously to you and to the totality of existence functioning through and as you. The essence of your consciousness turns out to be the essence of all consciousness. . . .
We must be willing to suspend the compulsive drive of the ego for quick and convenient answers to our deepest questions and be willing to live in the creative tension between the known and the unknown. This creative tension, when deeply relaxed into, reveals itself to be the source energy of insight and revelation. As counterintuitive as it sounds, we come to greater insight by a willingness to not know—the greatest light is always found in the darkest region of our silent confusion. To sink all the way down into the unknown within you is the way to awaken the greatest leaps of insight and clarity.
Excerpted from the book “Sacred Inquiry: Questions That Can Transform Your Life”
Q: After forty years of seeking and searching and practicing and cul-de-sacs and dead ends and moments of enlightening grace, your message is bringing it all together and dismantling it. It’s amazing that it comes to this.
The question: I come from a long legacy of Methodist ministers, and being good seems to have been the whole point of that and most religious teachings. Now I find myself struggling with not knowing whether my impulse to love and serve is more “good ego” or if it is coming from beyond that. My awareness of ego, and uncovering and dismantling it, is becoming quite constant, yet this confusion seems to be yet another of its tricks. How can I tell?
A: Of course there is nothing wrong (and much that is relatively right) with being a good and loving person, unless it becomes an identity. Good and loving acts are a virtue, but being identified with those acts easily becomes a vice. In truth, you are not a good or bad person, you are spirit itself. And although spirit usually gets associated with the good, it is actually far beyond being relatively good or bad.
All relative identities belong to the ego, as in “I am good.” But spirit is simply “I am”—not “I am this or that.” Abide in the felt sense of “I” with no conceptual overlay. True love springs forth from spirit, which is pure “I am.” The “I am” is naturally loving and egoless. Meditate on the sense of “I,” and it will lead you into that state which is the source of “I am.”
Ego is “I am this or that,” while the pure “I” is beyond ego and all definitions. It is without form, either physical or conceptual. It is pure consciousness and presence. By attending to your absolute subjectivity, you awaken as the unseen subject to all experience. The universal sense of the unseen self is the universal “I am,” which is all-encompassing unity and oneness.
And as I have tried to clarify, when both self and Self fall away in the experience of no-self (as in the crucifixion), the ultimate ground of existence is realized, and a new (resurrected) life begins.
The impulse to love and be of service can be coming from your higher nature, or true self. But it could also be coming from the ego which easily forms an identity around being “a good person.” If it is coming from your higher nature, it will flow from a natural abundance of well-being and you will feel no attachment to being viewed as a good or helpful person. If it is tinged with ego, it will be a way that you like to be seen by others, as well as an identity that you like to see yourself as. True nature is beyond being a good or bad person; it is pure being as such, prior to all relative identities.