I like to watch small things, insignificant things to most people. The way that water always takes the course of least resistance when flowing down the small mountain stream just below our house. Or how the snow which is piled high across the Sierra mountains this winter fell down one ephemeral tiny snowflake after another, not a single one knowing beforehand where it was going but none failing to find its place amongst the other trillion snowflakes that formed a white blanket across the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Or how selflessly each will dissolve into another form when the sun’s warm rays finally bring their transforming grace.
I watched a group of deer move silently through deep snow down the steep hillside foraging for scraps of food below our deck the other day. To watch a deer move is to watch the most extraordinary embodiment of awareness. Every nerve ending seems to vibrate with an intense sensory awareness but with no strain or excess effort. Each step is taken with such care and precision as to take one’s breath away. And each of them do it in a completely and seamlessly spontaneous way.
This is how I first got into spirituality, by immersing myself in nature and watching, watching very, very closely. When you do this for a long time something interesting begins to happen. You begin to sense and feel not only a deeper connection to the natural world but something even more subtle and alluring. You begin to intuit and feel a sort of subterranean movement in the world and within yourself. There is something, call it a sustaining generative power, a creative source, that begins to open its eyes within you. What becomes conscious is without name, it belongs to everything, and it is seen everywhere. Let’s call it the Tao.
Be very careful when looking for a definition of the Tao. We all like to have our intellectual ducks in a row but the Tao is too all-inclusive to grasp in an idea. In Zen, which arose out of a blending of the native Taoism of China with the Buddhism of India, no descriptions of reality are ultimately accepted. This is an attitude shared with both Zen and Taoism. You could say that the goal of both Taoism and Zen is to awaken to reality, but also be able to embody and express it with the whole body-mind. In these two forms of spirituality, one is not encouraged to describe reality, or one’s true nature, but to express it spontaneously. This emphasis on the ability to express and embody the Tao finds its most articulate expression in Zen, which is famous for Zen masters using all manner of actions to express the great Tao. For the Tao is not a noun, not a thing or a cosmic someone who watches over you, but rather the source and expression of all of life, including you!
I remember going in to meet with Zen teacher Kwong Roshi, with whom I did many retreats in my twenties. For a few years, every time I would see him for a private meeting I would get nervous and completely forget what I wanted to talk with him about. As I would sit nervously face-to-face in front of him, he would just stare out the small window on the side of the wall as I fumbled with my words. He would then give a few instructions for my practice and send me on my way.
One day I had a big shift. When I went in to see Kwong, I was no longer nervous at all. I did my customary full floor bows and sat directly in front of him. I immediately hit the floor hard with my hand and very loudly shouted, “Kaaaaaaa!” I then asked, “What is the true nature of this action?” Not so much as a question but as an opening salvo in our dialogue. Kwong looked at me long and hard and asked, “What is the true nature of this action?” Now we were cooking, like two kids playing with fire, tossing it back and forth to see if either one of us would get burned. I responded to his question immediately by once again hitting the floor hard and yelling, “Kaaaaaaaa!” To which Kwong responded, “Fifty percent.” And he gave me a smile. It would take me another seven years to realize the remaining fifty percent. (Sorry, I will not be explaining the other fifty percent here.)
This dialogue sounds pretty strange by conventional standards. That’s because it was a dharma dialogue, and a dharma dialogue uses words and actions to express awakened mind, not simply to describe it. The proof of an awakening’s authenticity lies in the embodied expression of it, not in the profound description of it. When I went in to see Kwong, I expressed my realization—he challenged it to see how deep and stable it was, and I responded.
The embodied activity or spirit of our dialogue was the Tao in action. And the spirit of our dialogue was charged with presence and dynamic energy. Kwong never looked out the window again during any of our subsequent meetings. Instead, I could see something in his eyes, as if he were silently saying, “I’m so glad you could finally show up here fully. I’ve been waiting for you.”
The Tao is all around us and all within us. It is not approached by grasping for it, or understanding it, but rather by aligning with the natural way of things. And what is the natural way of things?
Start here, pay attention. Pay attention to the natural way of things. Watch the clouds moving across the sky, The way water flows around things or the way a group of deer keep watch over one another. Watch also the rise and fall of your own breath and how connected it is to every sense organ. And how your insides are connected to what appears outside and how what is outside is connected to everything inside. When you begin to notice these things you will develop a sense and feel for the Tao. Hold it lightly With reverence and respect. And Care for the Tao in all things. Care for the Tao in all things.
Winter has come to the Sierra Nevada Mountain range where Mukti and I live, bringing with it snow, cold temperatures, and the unadorned beauty of nature shedding its spring and summer blooms and returning to its winter roots. The aspen trees in the canyon are bare now, having lost all of their yellow and golden fall leaves weeks ago, and the pines in the high country are heavy with glittering cotton candy snow, clutching to the branches and outstretched pine needles. The bears have all gone into hibernation by now, and the deer are quietly making their way down from the high meadows and streams to lower slopes in search of food. And as I shoveled a few feet of newly fallen snow from the steps leading to the front door, I was pulled into the spirit of nature’s winter return all around me.
Each one of us is as much a part of nature and the natural world as hibernating bears, deer on the move, or a cold winter storm moving in over the horizon. And yet even though we insulate ourselves from so many of the ways of nature, we ourselves are nature, and we reflect, in our consciousness, the same rhythms and patterns as the natural world all around us. If you are paying attention, you can feel the pattern of return and restoration during these winter months. You can also feel the natural movement of falling away and surrender that happens each and every winter, as the leaves fall from the trees and the blooms relinquish their petals to the forest floor to become nutrients for the re-emergence of new blooms in the spring. We are of course conditioned to look at new and pretty things, but all of life’s beauty arises from the primordial ground beyond all names and forms. If nothing falls away, there will be no room or energy for the new, the transformational, the life-giving renewal of spirit deep in the heart of everything.
This new year, I will be returning to teaching after a year-long sabbatical. My sabbatical has been a year of continuous return, of withering down to the essential. There is an old Zen saying that goes, “on the withered branch, a flower blooms.” Like all things Zen, great insight is conveyed in the most simple and natural forms of expression and with the minimum of explanation. We all like beautiful flowers, but conveniently dismiss the withered branches from which they arise and express.
The western mind is allured and attached to all things spring and summer, but the roots of wisdom and insight are forged in the withering and return of winter. The sun gods of various religions have always been popular throughout history; they are the charismatic superstars of mythology. But every sun god arises from the primordial ground, where, as Meister Eckhart said, “distinction never gazed.” Winter is itself a metaphor for “where distinction never gazed.” But winter is more than a metaphor, it is a material living expression of life’s return. Winter is the process of life casting off what is no longer essential or life-sustaining, renewing itself by a return to the essential, the core, the root of all that we are.
By joining with the natural movement of winter, and allowing the return of our consciousness to its roots in the primordial, the essential, the unconscious ground of all being, we not only awaken but we also nurture the dynamic and creative aspect of spirit by plunging it into its silent source. A source that can be realized but never turned into the known. So, let us embrace the wintertime of spirituality, and the great return to the essential, and to a mind that is not stuck in its own imagined knowing, thereby always being open to reality as reality.
Once, at a retreat where I was teaching, a woman came up to the microphone and said, “I feel such immense rage inside me! Even as I’m sitting here at this retreat, where I’m not being disturbed and not being challenged, I just feel so much rage! I look at people, and find myself judging them and being resentful of them for no reason whatsoever. A lot of my life, I’ve walked around feeling really, really angry.”
I could see in her eyes and in the way she held her body that these emotions of rage and anger had really taken over her whole system. What I said was, “I don’t want to talk to you. I want to talk to your rage.”
At first, she looked at me kind of perplexed. She didn’t know what I meant, so I said it again. I said, “I want to speak to the emotion of rage. Tell me how it views life, what it thinks about others. What are its judgments about the most significant people in your life?”
She looked at me with a sense of horror, and she said, “Oh, no! Not that!”
I said, “Yes, yes, yes. That’s what I want to talk to. I want you to give rage a voice. Stop holding yourself as separate from it, stop trying to get rid of it. Just for a moment, let your mind become a reflection of it.”
Fortunately, she had great courage. Because she had suffered so much, she was willing to take a chance, and so she started to speak to me from the emotion of rage. What spilled out were all of her toxic thoughts and ideas, all the ways her mind had formed conclusions about life and the people in her life, many of which were based on some very difficult moments in her upbringing. As I kept encouraging her by saying, “Yes!” and “Tell me more!” and “Tell me more!” she became more and more willing to let this voice of rage speak. As she did, all of the judgment, blaming, and condemning came out of her. Then, after she spoke in this way for a while, a softer voice began to emerge. It was the voice of deep hurt and sorrow. It was a more intimate, less guarded voice. She was literally giving voice to her pain and suffering. And as she did, I began to see exactly why she was suffering so much.
ALLOW YOUR SUFFERING TO SPEAK
Our suffering consists of two components: a mental component and an emotional component. We usually think of these two aspects as separate, but in fact, when we’re in deep states of suffering, we’re usually so overwhelmed by the experience of emotion that we forget and become unconscious of the story in our minds that is creating and maintaining it. So one of the most vital steps in addressing our suffering and moving beyond it is first to summon the courage and willingness to truly experience what we’re feeling and to no longer try to edit what we feel. In order to really allow ourselves to stay with the depth of our emotions, we must cease judging ourselves for whatever comes up.
I invite you to set some time aside—perhaps a half an hour—to allow yourself simply to feel whatever is there: to let any sensation, feeling, or emotion come up without trying to avoid or “solve” it. Simply let whatever is there arise. Get in touch with the kinesthetic feeling of it, of what these experiences are like when you’re not trying to push or explain them away. Just experience the raw energy of the emotion or sensation. You might notice it in your heart or your solar plexus, or in your gut. See if you can identify where the tightness is in your body—not only where the emotion is, but what parts of your body feel rigid. It could be your neck or shoulders or it might be your back. Suffering manifests as emotion—often as deep, painful emotion—and also as tension throughout the body. Suffering also manifests as certain patterns of circular thinking. Once you touch a particular emotion, allow yourself to begin to hear the voice of suffering. To do this, you cannot stand outside the suffering, trying to explain or solve it; you must really sink into the pain, even relax into the suffering so that you can allow the suffering to speak.
Many of us have a great hesitancy to do this, because when suffering speaks, it often has a very shocking voice. It can be quite vicious. This kind of voice is something that most people do not want to believe they have inside them, and yet to move beyond suffering it’s vital that we allow ourselves to experience the totality of it. It’s important that we open all the emotions and all of the thoughts in order to fully experience what is there.
When you notice some emotional hurt within you, allow your mind to speak to you, inside your head. Or you might even speak out loud. Often I’ll suggest to people that they write down what the voice of their suffering says. Try to keep it as short as possible, so that each sentence is contained in and of itself. For example, the voice of suffering might say something like, “I hate the world!” “The world is never fair!” “I never got what I wanted!” “My mother never gave me the love I needed!” and so on. Often, if it’s all kept in your head, it just turns into a big muddle. So the first step in releasing this muddle is to speak or write these voices of suffering.
What you’re looking for is how your suffering, how the particular emotion you are experiencing, actually views your life, views what happened, and views what’s happening now. To do this, you need to get in touch with the story of your suffering. It is through these stories that we maintain our suffering, so we need to speak or write these stories down—even if the stories sound outrageously judgmental or blaming or condemning. If we allow these stories to live underground, in the unconscious mind, all the painful emotions will continue to regenerate.
So now take a moment to allow a piece of your suffering to tell its story. First, name the emotion, then let it speak. What does this emotion think of you? What does it think of others, of your friends, your family? What does it hate most? Why does it appear in any given day? What is underneath these emotions? Let your suffering tell its entire story.
Excerpted from Adyashanti’s book, Falling into Grace, 2011.
Our primary cause of suffering is that we think deep inside we’re going to win the argument with what is. “What is” may be the world outside you, or you can be sitting all by yourself and you can be at war with yourself, saying, “The way it is, is not the way it should be. I want it to change.”
The problem is, the way you are at any instant is the way it is. That’s reality. Reality rules. It doesn’t change because you or I think it should be different. It’s very simple. And yet, when you really see it, you realize how easy it is to get lost in a literal state of insanity where your mind, your ego, is always telling life: “It’s not the way it should be. I’m not the way I should be. You’re not the way you should be. Something is wrong.”
That sense of wrongness has been around for a long time. But the only thing that’s wrong is that we keep believing there’s something wrong. And when we believe there’s something wrong, we treat the world badly.
You treat yourself badly when you think there’s something wrong with you. The more wrong you feel about yourself, the worse you treat yourself. We’re afraid to let go of that because we think unconsciously, “If we let go of that, then everything would spiral up and out of control. We wouldn’t feed the hungry and we wouldn’t pay attention to the needy and we’d all be self-absorbed. The world needs my argument with it. Otherwise it’s never going to become better.” It’s just insanity.
Where we are, we got here precisely because we argue with what is. And then our hearts close, and our minds close, and the inherent creativity of Spirit shrinks, and our options seem to diminish, and we’re walking in blinders. And the more we have blinders on, the more justified we feel in our reasons to oppose our lives.
At some point, something hits you: “Oh, that’s insane. That’s an argument I can’t win. I can’t win the argument with life. I can’t win the argument with myself. It has no validity to it, none whatsoever.” And then maybe it just starts to collapse.
And isn’t it when the heart opens, when the mind opens, that you and I join with right now? It doesn’t matter how “right now” is. Right now you might feel like a real disaster. You may feel absolutely horrible right now. If you totally join with even that, at the moment you join with it, it’s perfectly fine. It’s the cause of your freedom, just joining with life.
The profound, ungraspable, and invisible Ground of Being is attained by non-attainment, by letting go and letting be. Nothing is added to us; rather, we awaken to our always and already present Ground and source. This source is not apart from anything, and yet it is completely detached. As we connect to this Ground of Being, what we discover is our original innocence wherein every moment feels like a new creation, like something that has never been before.
Our Ground of Being is a timeless state. It is a dimension where the mind is emptied of content and renewed moment to moment. Therefore, such a mind dwells in innocence where the present is not filtered and interpreted through the past. The vast collection of human knowledge is available, if needed, but it is no longer a wall between you and what is, as it really is.
Therefore, from the Ground of Being each moment is experienced directly, with no distorting lens of past conditioning and no sense of time. Because it is a timeless state of only the eternal Now, the Ground of Being sees through the eyes of eternity and feels through the constant renewal of the senses. Each moment is as a birth moment, with all its innocence and wonder.
Feel into the silence of the lower belly that is prior to (yet all around) the mind. Notice that silence is the presence of absence.
Although there may be thoughts, the great silence is itself an absence of thought.
Although there may be feelings and sensations, the great silence is itself the absence of feeling and sensation.
Although there may be sounds, the great silence is itself an absence of sounds.
Notice that this absence, this emptiness, is full of presence, full of wonder and awe.
Let yourself intuitively sense the alive presence of this absence.
Do not be afraid, for this great absence is itself infinite potentiality. It is the true source of all.
Rest in this great womb of unknowingness until this unknowingness opens its eyes within you and as you.
Notice that in your Ground of Being you are the shining presence of this absence—absence of self, absence of other, absence of time, absence of sorrow, absence of anxiety.
Notice that this great absence is also total presence, total timeless freedom of Being.
Notice that when you look within yourself, you find that you are beyond nothingness and something-ness.
You are what the mind can never describe or imagine.
This itself is great liberation, a return to and rediscovery of innocence.
Excerpted from Adya’s audio course Redemptive Love (Q&A)
Q: I have been sitting with allowing all things to be as they are—my illness, confusion, relationships, etc.—and in that silent acceptance I feel peace. But when I have to actually interact with the world, I can feel myself responding from my conditioned mind and ego. Sitting with the idea of redemptive love when I am alone seems to be easier than when life presents situations asking for my engagement—husband, children, clients, family, etc.
What could I practice in such moments, or what thought can I contemplate to help me move more from a place of authenticity rather than craving to be alone?
A: It is easier to be in a state of acceptance when you are alone and not in relationship with anything other than yourself. But life is nothing but constant relationship: relationship with the environment, people, situations, work, play, as well as with your own inner experience. The question is, “How am I to be in relationship with all of life?” Even if we have experienced the oneness of all existence, the One is still in constant relationship with itself. So, from where inside are we relating to all of the events of life?
In any situation we are either relating from fear or love. If we are trying to control, manipulate, gain power over, dominate, be agreed with, be loved, be right, be a victim, etc., we are relating from fear. And since fear is a very weak force, although it can be experienced very strongly, we are diminished and dominated by it. Fear in all its varied forms is what fuels the dream state of sorrow and violence. Wherever it is motivating action, it is ultimately destructive and life numbing. This is not to say that one should not feel fear, only that to act or relate from fear is destructive. Simply because we feel fear does not mean that we need to act and relate from it. In fact, the more open we are to experiencing fear, the less it controls our actions. Love does not fear fear, because Love is a much stronger force in the world.
The remedy for fear is not courage, it is Love—although courage is sometimes necessary. Love will always conquer fear.
So ask yourself, “What would Love do?”—not your idea of love, which for most people is quite distorted, but the universal reality of love. This is not as complicated as people make it out to be. So don’t refer to your ideas about love, but rather evoke the reality of love by simply asking the question, What would Love do? This question is a deep inquiry, something to really sit with and allow to grow within yourself. You must get underneath your old ideas of what Love is and how it moves in the world. Sit in the silence of the question. Don’t jump to quick answers. And remember that Love is not sentimental or indulgent. Love is fearless, wise, and true, and therefore it is an extremely healing and unifying grace. Love is absolute intimacy and truth in action.
Love is absolute intimacy and truth in action. Remember this and contemplate it until it begins to come alive within you. Love is absolute intimacy and truth in action. Love is the living embodiment of grace.
Although Redemptive Love can be experienced as a healing infusion of grace, it also seeks to be put into action.
When you start to look at your idea of yourself, it’s all layers, like peeling all the layers of an onion until there’s no onion left. You might ask, “Will the true entity of me show up, the sterling spiritual version of me?” And at any moment that you peer beyond the layers, it’s disconcerting, because you keep finding, “The more I look for myself, the more I can’t find myself. I keep peeling through the layers looking for the core of me, and there’s no core.” In a sense, there is a core, but it’s not the core as we think of it. Because there’s still something, or more accurately, there’s still “nothing” that recognizes that there’s nothing. That recognition is consciousness.
Consciousness isn’t a thing. It’s not an entity. It’s not a little core piece of you. It’s that which sees and experiences, and it makes every experience possible. It lights up the world. No consciousness, no experience of the world.
Most of ego’s problematic aspects revolve around a condensed experience of being, where it makes us feel like we are simply a separate entity. A lot of spirituality has to do with unraveling that until we see there’s nothing there. But it’s not true to just say, “There’s nothing,” because there is something. It’s not a thing though; it’s that which lights up the whole universe. We’re all utilizing it right now. It’s perfectly functioning in this moment as much as it will ever function.
The ground of being, sometimes called the Absolute, the Godhead, or Dharmakaya [the body of Truth], in and of itself is unconscious of itself. It’s aware, but it has no awareness of itself. It has no self-consciousness. In fact, we might just call it Awareness since there’s really nothing to it in a conventional sense. It’s a domain of pure infinite potentiality.
If you imagine what pure infinite potentiality would look like, it wouldn’t look like anything, because it hasn’t become anything yet. So it would be like an abyss of nothing, but not your ordinary nothing—the potentiality of all existence, like supernovas and galaxies and universes. We’re talking about a lot of potentiality, including the potentiality for human beings to develop self-consciousness.
This Absolute that’s aware, but not self-aware, uses the human being’s consciousness to become self-aware. It’s conscious, but it’s not self-conscious. It needs consciousness to light it up, so it becomes self-aware. And that’s a moment of awakening. If awakening penetrates to that depth, it’s the absolute depth of being, which you could say is the absolute totality of the psyche becoming conscious of itself: I AM.
The deepest domain of your psyche, the most unconscious domain of your psyche, needs consciousness to become self-aware—hence the spiritual impulse. It comes and gets you. Then we attach our agenda to it, like “I hope this makes me feel better, and makes my life more complete.” And that’s fine. It will use that, too. It’s understandable that we add on our human hopes not to suffer so much. But this impulse actually originates beyond the pleasure principle. It’s about something else.
The journey is actually in both directions. We need the divine, and it needs us every bit as much as we need it. It needs the consciousness. That’s basically what spirituality is: You’re making conscious the domains of human experience that are generally unconscious. That’s why you feel the pull, and you don’t know where it is coming from or where is it going. You wonder, “Why do I care about all this?” It means it’s coming from a domain of your being or your psyche that’s unconscious to you. You’re just conscious of the pull or the yearning. That yearning is not just yours; it actually originates from its completion.
So when we go into that deep domain, some dimension of consciousness comes in, and all of a sudden it’s like the lights come on. It’s awake, and when it’s awake, all the yearning ceases. The seeking ceases. The seeker ceases. It all just drops away, because it’s been satisfied. It's not so much the human that's been satisfied; that dimension of consciousness has been satisfied. Of course, then they go together. You recognize it’s all the same thing, because in that dimension, we realize that what we call the unconscious is far vaster than we think it is. The unconscious in this dimension is connected with all of existence. That’s why when you get to a sufficient depth, you experience “I am That.” And “That” means everything from a teacup to every star that you see in the sky. It’s a direct experience of being.
(Excerpted from Falling Into Grace: Insights on the End of Suffering)
The real search isn’t a search into tomorrow, or to anywhere other than now. It’s starting to look into the very nature of this moment. In order to do that, you have to “stand in your own two shoes,” as my teacher used to say. What she meant by “standing in your own two shoes” is you have to look clearly into your own experience. Stop trying to have someone else’s experience. Stop chasing freedom or happiness, or even spiritual enlightenment. Stand in your own shoes, and examine closely: What’s happening right here and right now? Is it possible to let go of trying to make anything happen? Even in this moment, there may be some suffering, there may be some unhappiness, but even if there is, is it possible to no longer push against it, to try to get rid of it, to try to get somewhere else?
I understand that our instinct is to move away from what’s not comfortable, to try to get somewhere better, but as my teacher used to say, “You need to take the backward step, not the forward step.” The forward step is always moving ahead, always trying to attain what you want, whether it’s a material possession or inner peace. The forward step is very familiar: seeking and more seeking, striving and more striving, always looking for peace, always looking for happiness, looking for love. To take the backward step means to just turn around, reverse the whole process of looking for satisfaction on the outside, and look at precisely the place where you are standing. See if what you are looking for isn’t already present in your experience.
So, again, to lay the groundwork for awakening, we must first let go of struggling. You let go by acknowledging that the end of struggle is actually present in your experience now. The end of struggle is peace. Even if your ego is struggling, even if you’re trying to figure this out and “do it right,” if you really look, you might just see that struggle is happening within a greater context of peace, within an inner stillness. But if you try to make stillness happen, you’ll miss it. If you try to make peace happen, you’ll miss it. This is more like a process of recognition, giving recognition to a stillness that is naturally present.
We’re not bringing struggle to an end. We’re not trying to not struggle anymore. We’re just noticing that there is a whole other dimension to consciousness that, in this very moment, isn’t struggling, isn’t resentful, isn’t trying to get somewhere. You can literally feel it in your body. You can’t think your way to not struggling. There isn’t a three–point plan of how not to struggle. It’s really a one–point plan: Notice that the peace, this end of struggling, is actually already present.
The process is therefore one of recognition. We recognize that there is peace now, even if your mind is confused. You may see that even when you touch upon peace now, the mind is so conditioned to move away from it that it will try to argue with the basic fact of peace’s existence within you: “I can’t be at peace yet because I have to do this, or that, or this question hasn’t been answered, or that question hasn’t been answered, or so–and–so hasn’t apologized to me.” There are all sorts of ways that the egoic mind can insist that something needs to happen, something needs to change, in order for you to be at peace. But this is part of the dream of the mind. We’re all taught that something needs to change for us to experience true peace and freedom.
Just imagine for a moment that this isn’t true. Even though you may believe that it’s true, just imagine for a moment: What would it be like if you didn’t need to struggle, if you didn’t need to make an effort to find peace and happiness? What would that feel like now? And just take a moment to be quiet and see if peace or stillness is with you in this moment.
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.