In spiritual realization, if we mistake the first blush, the by-products of first discovery, for that which we’ve discovered, then we remain a kind of immature lover. An immature lover endlessly mistakes love for the experience of falling in love. In the same way, we may remain an immature realizer. We may have realized something, but we can remain in an immature state: “I want it to be this way all the time. I want it to feel like, ‘Oh, my God!’ all the time.” You’re not going to get past the threshold of the doorway of reality doing that. Experience teaches us that, and then we start to let go of it. We move beyond the ego mind into just being what we are.
That matures for a while. And then at some point, there may be a vast expanse of consciousness. It's like being a conscious, awake, alive, vibrant “nothing.” And it’s a great nothing to be—a totally ascendant, transcendent experience. But it starts to dawn on you, “Okay, I am the nothing as opposed to everything else. Something doesn’t quite add up. There’s still some division. Maybe this isn’t the entire picture.” Not that you have to throw away what you’ve realized, but maybe there’s more to the picture. “Maybe it’s not just this stark duality that I have going, being the aware, awake nothing of consciousness and the everything of existence, the form of existence. That’s a fundamental duality.”
When that interest arises in you, it starts to help. There’s a clutching that you don’t even know is happening. It’s deep in the unconscious. It’s holding on to the new identity of formlessness. There’s a great tendency to want to stay there because it’s a kind of heaven. And you can understand why, because life’s a rough ride sometimes, and then you come into contact with something that’s never been harmed and can’t be harmed ever, and is always there, something that nobody can give you or take away from you. It is such an amazing relief and security to experience something like that. One is not quick to let it go, nor should we be quick to let it go. But it does arise that there may be more to this story.
That curiosity starts to loosen the unconscious holding on to the new identity as formless awareness. It’s not that the formless awareness identity has to go anywhere; it’s just that the clutching at it starts to loosen. And as it loosens, then the witness position relinquishes itself, and the witnessing collapses into the witnessed. When the holding starts to be relinquished, it’s the descending movement. It descends down into the heart. When this descent happens, the heart starts to awaken, and the witness collapses into the witnessed. Then we start perceiving through the heart, seeing through the heart. Then the witness and what is witnessed seem to be one. They’re the same.
It’s a grand inclusion and the waking up of a perceptual capacity from the heart that sees the underlying unity of existence. Experientially, it’s like looking up at a tree and feeling as if the tree is seeing itself. Or you look up at the sky and it feels as though the sky is seeing itself. Or you touch something and you feel as though what you’re touching is feeling itself.
There’s no subject-object relationship going on anymore. There’s just one seamless thing, whatever you want to call it. Ramana called it the Self. The Buddhists call it Buddha nature. You could even call it the perception of life experiencing itself. “Oh, I thought I was apart from life. I thought life was something that I was in and trying to negotiate.” That’s the egoic perspective. “And now I see that I’m actually life itself, the whole of it, also appearing as a particular part at the same time.” You get to play both sides.
Awakeness is inherent in all things and all beings everywhere all the time. This awakeness relates to every moment from innocence from absolute honesty from a state where you feel absolutely authentic. Only from this state do you realize that you never really wanted whatever you thought you wanted. You realize that behind all of your desires was a single desire: to experience each moment from your true nature.
Anybody can awaken to the truth of being. And yet, when it is realized, often the person who has committed a large portion of his or her life to the spiritual path is more readily able to let go and flow with that realization than the person who hasn’t been on a spiritual path. Does that have anything to do with some sort of merit earned by sitting on a meditation cushion, or whatever the spiritual practice was? Absolutely not! It has nothing to do with that. It has nothing whatever to do with preparing the field, tilling the soil, or fertilizing the soul. It’s just that it’s possible, though not a guarantee, that someone who has made the spiritual search his or her priority in life is already in fidelity to truth when realization happens. Realization was wanted more than anything else, and his or her life has been a living, walking, breathing demonstration of this fidelity.
But if those who walk in off the street and realize the truth of their being want it just as much as those who put in decades of spiritual practice, guess what? They are at no disadvantage whatsoever. None. Zero. And by the way, having put decades into the spiritual life and spiritual practice does not necessarily mean that we actually value the truth more than anything else. It’s no guarantee. But to take awakening into enlightenment requires a certain sort of fierce commitment to the truth. It is a surrender to what is realized, a surrender to not be moved in the face of anything. And for anybody who loves the truth, really loves the truth, this surrender is not going to be avoided.
In the past, the deepest spiritual teachings were reserved for a very small part of the spiritual population. Those were the people who became monks or nuns or sadhus (renunciants), and committed their entire existence to get the teachings. You couldn’t get the teachings until you’d done that, walked away from family and friends and life as you knew it, and put everything on the line. And even then, teachers wouldn’t give the teachings to you immediately. They’d probably make you wait some years. Why? Because those few enlightened beings knew that to really take awakening to enlightenment or liberation was going to require that kind of commitment, that kind of love of the truth, and the kind of person who would put all their eggs into that basket, right there.
Today you do not have to live in that rarified spiritual environment or commit your entire life to get the teachings of the truth. And yet, to realize the truth and then take it all the way into living and being what you really are, fully and completely, the internal commitment is not any less. It can’t be any less because nothing less than a full, internal love of truth will do. If you love anything more than you love the truth, there’s no way this realization can complete itself. You can realize it, you can awaken, and you can have a nice enlightenment experience, but it’s not going to be something that’s going to be stable and effortless, or last forever. That’s just the physics of it. I’m not writing the rules. It’s just the way things are.
When you realize the truth, then you know that this truth is not fooling around. This truth wants you, and it wants your life, and it’s going to devour you and eat you up for dinner. The truth is not playing games. I’ve had more than one person say, “Adya, how do I turn this off? How do I back out of this deal? This isn’t what I signed up for.” And the only answer is, “Sorry, it’s too late, you can’t back out. You can walk away from me and from all teachers, and from spirituality altogether. You can go to the end of the earth and play some other game, but it’s too late. You can’t unrealize what you realize.” It’s a game until it’s not, but by the time you realize that it’s not a game, you can’t back out.
By and large, people want liberation, freedom, bliss, peace, love, and total release from fear. They want all the accoutrements of enlightenment without having to pay the price. They don’t want to pay the price of a total love affair, a total commitment. I’m not speaking of anything that is separate or different from your life. This doesn’t have anything to do with the monastery or leaving your day-to-day existence. The truth is here in every single moment of your life. That’s the truth. It’s not separate from your life. You can’t run away from yourself and your life in order to awaken to reality. Your life is your path to awakening. Stop and open your eyes: You were free from the very beginning.
Please understand that it’s not you that wakes up; it’s reality that wakes up, the truth wakes up. You are not enlightened; enlightenment is enlightened. Ultimately this realization doesn’t have anything to do with individuals, since there aren’t any separate individuals. That is the whole illusion, that there is something separate from the ultimate reality. When it’s clear that there’s nothing going on other than the ultimate reality, it’s a done deal—enlightenment is effortless.
Excerpted from a talk in Mountain View, California, March 13, 2003.
Our deepest spiritual experiences and awakenings are transcendent of self. It’s as if we’re leaping out of the domain of relativity and leaving it behind altogether, to go into the dimension of pure being, the ground of being.
The human dimension that you leap out of when you transcend it may or may not be that ultimately transformed by what you’ve realized. You will always be transformed to certain degrees. But closing the gap between your absolute and relative nature, between your deepest experience of being—whatever that might be for you—and your relative human experience of being, is getting those two dimensions of your being into conversation. Your depth of life translates into your relative life. This is essential if we are to have the experience of being unified beings, unified in the sense that all of you feels like it’s aligned in one direction.
By starting to explore this, the more unified you become, the more your depth and your relative life start to come closer and closer together. They begin to express each other, so that you have a deeper and deeper experience of meaning.
The absolute ground of being is transcendent of meaning. Meaning almost doesn’t make much sense there. But in the relative dimension of being, meaning is meaningful. It means something. Our humanity, if it has no sense of proper orientation or meaning, tends to be in a more chaotic state of being that is innately unsatisfied.
Part of our ability to translate more and more our deepest experience of being into a relative way of being is that it brings meaning back into life. I'm not talking about meaning in a philosophical sense, where you can tell someone the meaning of life. I’m talking about meaning as an experience of being, where you feel as if you’re in the right place at the right time, doing the right thing. Have you had that experience? It’s an experience where you just feel altogether that you're in the right place, doing the right thing at the right time. And you feel it. You don’t get there through analysis or conventional thinking. You get there when you’re doing the right thing at the right time. That is the sense, the experience of meaning.
Meaning in this sense is an experience of being, rather than an idea that you’re imposing upon life. It’s the experience where you feel that you are in alignment with the cosmos. It’s the feeling that your life feels right, it’s on course, and it’s in alignment with the cosmos. You’re in alignment with life. That gives life a sense of meaning—not a philosophical idea of meaning, but the experience of meaning.
The experience of meaning is in some ways similar to the enlightened condition. The enlightened condition is transcendent of meaning, but one way of describing the enlightened condition is always being in the right place at the right time, doing the right thing, totally inwardly aligned, undivided inwardly, psychologically and emotionally undivided. That’s the enlightened condition. And that’s a pretty good description of the experience of relative meaning.
From Adyashanti’s Online Course Taking the One Seat, 2017
The enlightenment I speak of is not simply a realization, not simply the discovery of one’s true nature. This discovery is just the beginning—the point of entry into an inner revolution. Realization does not guarantee this revolution; it simply makes it possible.
What is this inner revolution? To begin with, revolution is not static; it is alive, ongoing, and continuous. It cannot be grasped or made to fit into any conceptual model. Nor is there any path to this inner revolution, for it is neither predictable nor controllable and has a life all its own. This revolution is a breaking away from the old, repetitive, dead structures of thought and perception that humanity finds itself trapped in. Realization of the ultimate reality is a direct and sudden existential awakening to one’s true nature that opens the door to the possibility of an inner revolution. Such a revolution requires an ongoing emptying out of the old structures of consciousness and the birth of a living and fluid intelligence. This intelligence restructures your entire being—body, mind, and perception. This intelligence cuts the mind free of its old structures that are rooted within the totality of human consciousness. If one cannot become free of the old conditioned structures of human consciousness, then one is still in a prison.
Having an awakening to one’s true nature does not necessarily mean that there will be an ongoing revolution in the way one perceives, acts, and responds to life. The moment of awakening shows us what is ultimately true and real as well as revealing a deeper possibility in the way that life can be lived from an undivided and unconditioned state of being. But the moment of awakening does not guarantee this deeper possibility, as many who have experienced spiritual awakening can attest to. Awakening opens a door inside to a deep inner revolution, but in no way guarantees that it will take place. Whether it takes place or not depends on many factors, but none more important and vital than an earnest and unambiguous intention for truth above and beyond all else. This earnest intention toward truth is what all spiritual growth ultimately depends upon, especially when it transcends all personal preferences, agendas, and goals.
This inner revolution is the awakening of an intelligence not born of the mind but of an inner silence of mind, which alone has the ability to uproot all of the old structures of one’s consciousness. Unless these structures are uprooted, there will be no creative thought, action, or response. Unless there is an inner revolution, nothing new and fresh can flower. Only the old, the repetitious, the conditioned will flower in the absence of this revolution. But our potential lies beyond the known, beyond the structures of the past, beyond anything that humanity has established. Our potential is something that can flower only when we are no longer caught within the influence and limitations of the known. Beyond the realm of the mind, beyond the limitations of humanity’s conditioned consciousness, lies that which can be called the sacred. And it is from the sacred that a new and fluid consciousness is born that wipes away the old and brings to life the flowering of a living and undivided expression of being. Such an expression is neither personal nor impersonal, neither spiritual nor worldly, but rather the flow and flowering of existence beyond all notions of self.
So let us understand that reality transcends all of our notions about reality. Reality is neither Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Advaita Vedanta, nor Buddhist. It is neither dualistic nor nondualistic, neither spiritual nor nonspiritual. We should come to know that there is more reality and sacredness in a blade of grass than in all of our thoughts and ideas about reality. When we perceive from an undivided consciousness, we will find the sacred in every expression of life. We will find it in our teacup, in the fall breeze, in the brushing of our teeth, in each and every moment of living and dying. Therefore we must leave the entire collection of conditioned thought behind and let ourselves be led by the inner thread of silence into the unknown, beyond where all paths end, to that place where we go innocently or not at all—not once but continually.
One must be willing to stand alone—in the unknown, with no reference to the known or the past or any of one’s conditioning. One must stand where no one has stood before in complete nakedness, innocence, and humility. One must stand in that dark light, in that groundless embrace, unwavering and true to the reality beyond all self—not just for a moment, but forever without end. For then that which is sacred, undivided, and whole is born within consciousness and begins to express itself.
There is a very famous poem written by the third patriarch of Zen, Seng-ts’an, called the Hsin-Hsin Ming, which translates as Verses in Faith Mind. In this poem Seng-ts’an writes these lines: “Do not seek the truth; only cease to cherish opinions.” This is a reversal of the way most people go about trying to realize absolute truth. Most people seek truth, but Seng-ts’an is saying not to seek truth. This sounds very strange indeed. How will you find truth if you don’t seek it? How will you find happiness if you do not seek it? How will you find God if you do not seek God? Everyone seems to be seeking something. In spirituality seeking is highly honored and respected, and here comes Seng-ts’an saying not to seek.
The reason Seng-ts’an is saying not to seek is because truth, or reality, is not something objective. Truth is not something “out there.” It is not something you will find as an object of perception or as a temporal experience. Reality is neither inside of you nor outside of you. Both “outside” and “inside” are not getting to the point. They both miss the mark because outside and inside are conceptual constructs with no inherent reality. They are simply abstract points of reference. Even words like “you,” or “me,” or “I,” are nothing more than conceptual points of reference existing only in the mind. Such concepts may have a practical value in daily life, but when assumed to be true they distort perception and create a virtual reality, or what in the East is called the world of samsara.
Seng-ts’an was a wily old Zen master. He viewed things through the eye of enlightenment and was intimately aware of how the conditioned mind fools itself into false pursuits and blind alleys. He knew that seeking truth, or reality, is as silly as a dog thinking that it must chase its tail in order to attain its tail. The dog already has full possession of its tail from the very beginning. Besides, once the dog grasps his tail, he will have to let go of it in order to function. So even if you were to find the truth through grasping, you will have to let it go at some point in order to function. But even so, any truth that is attained through grasping is not the real truth because such a truth would be an object and therefore not real to begin with.
In order to seek, you must first have an idea, ideal, or an image, what it is you are seeking. That idea may not even be very conscious or clear but it must be there in order for you to seek. Being an idea it cannot be real. That’s why Seng-ts’an says “only cease to cherish opinions.” By opinions he means ideas, ideals, beliefs, and images, as well as personal opinions. This sounds easy but it is rarely as easy as it seems. Seng-ts’an is not saying you should never have a thought in your head, he is saying not to cherish the thoughts in your head. To cherish implies an emotional attachment and holding on to. When you cherish something, you place value on it because you think that it is real or because it defines who you think you are. This cherishing of thoughts and opinions is what the false self thrives on. It is what the false self is made of. When you realize that none of your ideas about truth are real, it is quite a shock to your system. It is an unexpected blow to the seeker and the seeking.
The task of any useful spiritual practice is therefore to dismantle cherishing the thoughts, opinions, and ideas that make up the false self, the self that is seeking. This is the true task of both meditation and inquiry. Through meditation we can come to see that the only thing that makes us suffer is our own mind. Sitting quietly reveals the mind to be nothing but conditioned thinking spontaneously arising within awareness. Through cherishing this thinking, through taking it to be real and relevant, we create internal images of self and others and the world. Then we live in these images as if they were real. To be caught within these images is to live in an illusory virtual reality.
Through observing the illusory nature of thought without resisting it, we can begin to question and inquire into the underlying belief structures that support it. These belief structures are what form our emotional attachments to the false self and the world our minds create.
This is why I sometimes ask people, “Are you ready to lose your world?” Because true awakening will not fit into the world as you imagine it or the self you imagine yourself to be. Reality is not something that you integrate into your personal view of things. Reality is life without your distorting stories, ideas, and beliefs. It is perfect unity free of all reference points, with nowhere to stand and nothing to grab hold of. It has never been spoken, never been written, never been imagined. It is not hidden, but in plain view. Cease to cherish opinions and it stands before your very eyes.
What is inquiry, really? This is a good question. And like most really good questions, it is very basic. Authentic inquiry is allowing yourself to care, to take on the weightless burden of caring. Everyone knows what it’s like to inquire out of intellectual interest—asking for the sake of asking or because you think you should. This is not caring. When you care about something, it gets inside of you. It gets inside the shell that keeps you from being affected or bothered, the shell that keeps anything really new from happening.
So in the beginning, to deeply inquire about anything, you have to care about it. You have to care enough to allow it to get inside that shell. What do you really care about? What pulls you into here and now, this minute? What is the most important thing to you? For real inquiry, it is important to be asking about something you sincerely care about. The question needs to be personal, not about a spiritual teaching or something that’s outside of your experience. It needs to be something that’s coming from the inside.
When you care, you care from the inside. Many people impose ideas from the outside upon themselves, but this isn’t inquiry. When you really care, you enter a love affair with what you care about. Sometimes it draws you into bliss, sometimes into confusion. You don’t know what to do. You don’t know where you are going. You feel a bit out of control. You’re letting this caring get under your skin. To find out that you care like this is the most important thing; otherwise you can spend your whole life caring about what someone else says you should care about.
Like many people, you may be afraid to find out how much you care because that caring could just steal you away. What is the one thing that will matter the most at the end of your life? Without it, you would say: “That’s what it was all about and I missed it.” If you had the best job, lots of money, the perfect lover, or whatever your ideal is, and suddenly your life was over, what would still be left undone? That’s what it’s all about.
When you find that kind of caring, inquiry has some power behind it. You also find your own inner integrity. You find something inside that’s stable. There’s a place inside you that is willing to be a little crazy—crazy enough to take inquiry seriously and hold nothing sacred. Holding nothing sacred means that nothing is assumed to be true and all of your assumptions are fair game. The more spiritual they are, the more they are fair game. Ultimately it is your most sacred and unquestioned assumptions about yourself, others, and life that are most important to question.
Many people find their spirituality taking them outward. They think they are going inward because they have heard the spiritual teaching, “Inquire and look within.” Meanwhile, they are out in the stars somewhere looking for someone else’s experience, looking for the right experience, or looking for the experience they believe they are supposed to have. This is spirituality going entirely in the wrong direction. Inquiry is a means of taking you back to yourself, back to your experience.
When inquiry is authentic, it brings you into the experience of here and now, bringing you to the full depth of it, pulling you into it. The question pulls you back into the mystery of your experience. “What am I?” takes you right back into the mystery. If your mind is honest, it knows it doesn’t have the answer. You ask, “What am I?” and instantly, there is silence. Your mind doesn’t know. And when it doesn’t know, there is an experience right here, right now, that is alive. You bump into nothingness inside—that no-thing, that absolute nothingness which your mind can’t know.
The answer does not come in the form of a description or phrase; it is a direct experience. And this experience, your livingness, always transcends any words or intellectual answer. In fact, the truth of your being is eternally transcending itself. As soon as it projects itself out as something, even as a profound insight, it has already transcended it. So eventually the inquiry wears itself out. You wear yourself out. You wear your ego self out. You wear your spiritual self out. You wear it all out. You’ve inquired yourself out of this whole thing, and you’re disappearing faster than you can put yourself together.
As Nisargadatta Maharaj said so brilliantly and beautifully, “The ultimate understanding is that there is no ultimate understanding.” When it’s in the head, it’s an impressive piece of understanding; when it’s in the heart, as the Buddha said, it’s extinguished. You find a living experience of being, empty of content, empty of you. This is where spiritual awakening begins. This is the living answer of authentic inquiry.
To move beyond all pairs of opposites within oneself is the heart and soul of spirituality. Awareness itself is not a female or a male awareness. It doesn’t belong to me; it doesn’t belong to you. It’s not a right awareness or a wrong awareness. Awareness itself, consciousness itself, lies beyond and before the opposites.
The fundamental ground of your nature is inherently already and always free, inherently already and always complete. This part, when it’s discovered, is where you realize everything is One. It is an exquisite place beyond the pairs of opposites. It is in the very heart of every being, and it is the same in every being. This is a wonderful thing to realize, because then you can start to connect to that which is indivisible. And that is an entirely different place to live one’s life from.
Most human beings are living their whole lives from the pairs of opposites because it’s the only way they know. But when you discover that there is within you this place that is beyond the pairs of opposites, and that place, that state of awareness, is actually what you are, you start to realize you can live from that place.
To live from that place, self-grasping must be let go of more and more fully, because the only thing that keeps anybody from living from that place is holding onto thoughts, ideas, judgments, regrets—all those things that cause you to hold onto yourself. They literally create your self, and as soon as they are let go of, that self is not there anymore.
Living from that place, you start to choose to be simple, to give your attention to the simplicity, to what’s awake in you, to what lies beyond the pairs of opposites: your inherent nature as awareness or consciousness itself. It’s a very simple thing. Through this, it introduces you to the fundamental nature of yourself, the fundamental nature of reality.
You’ll know when you get there, because you stop asking, “Have I gotten there yet?” It’s an exquisite place to get to. It’s very liberating when you discover yourself as you truly are. It’s that place within you that is free, within and from the pairs of opposites. The exquisiteness is the sense of freedom. It’s what brings rest.
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.
Study Course Q&AExcerpted from "The Philosophy of Enlightenment"
My Dear Friends,
This letter is in response to several letters I have gotten during this course that have asked about how to deal with chronic pain and illness. Although this important subject is a bit outside the scope of this course, I feel called to respond to those who have written in about it. I have condensed my response to these emails into this one response, given that there were so many questions regarding this challenging topic.
There is an unavoidable tragic aspect to life. We will all experience the loss of loved ones, illness, and tragedies of various kinds and to varying degrees. As the Buddha said, in life there is suffering. No sugarcoated truth here; he was just stating one of the unavoidable facts of life. However, this is not the end of the story, it is just the beginning.
One of the greatest challenges of dealing with chronic illness is the feeling of isolation and aloneness, and experiencing something that so few understand. Many more people deal with chronic illness and pain than most people would imagine. There is also the challenge of experiencing something that you have little or no control over, which can elicit feelings of fear, rage, depression, and victimhood. One also becomes more vulnerable to the darker impulses of the mind as it struggles to adapt to the day-to-day realities of what often feels overwhelming.
Notwithstanding the necessity of caring for your health and physical well-being to the best of your ability, what I want to address here is the psychological aspect of prolonged illness and/or pain. It is very important to look closely at the difference between the body’s experience of pain and illness and the mind’s reaction to it. It is the mind’s reactions and the emotions that they trigger that are often more challenging than the physical experience of pain or illness itself, because the mind’s responses are optional.
Most of the ways that the mind responds to prolonged pain and illness elicit the fight-or-flight response in the brain. This response, which takes place in the most primitive part of our brain, underlies almost all of the emotional turmoil associated with prolonged pain and illness. It is the mind saying no to what is being experienced, while simultaneously trying to run away from it. There is nowhere to run to, because the perceived threat is not occurring outside of our bodies, it is occurring inside of our minds. The good news is that the mind and the emotions that it elicits are changeable.
The practice that is essential when dealing with the fight-or-flight mechanism of the mind is, first of all, to notice when it is happening and take immediate action to counter it. Because this is an email, I will condense my explanation of the practice here below.
1. Notice when the fight-or-flight response is happening. The symptoms that it has triggered are fear, anger, anxiety, resentment, defeatism, victimhood, and rampant negative thinking, to name a few.
2. Once you have noticed the fight-or-flight response is taking place, stop and take several conscious deep breaths. You are beginning to go against the tide of the fight-or-flight response, so you may experience some inner resistance to doing even this first step. Nonetheless, take the time to take a few conscious breaths. This will begin to biologically counter the fight-or-flight response in the brain. It will help the brain to reset its response to physical and emotional challenge.
3. Notice the negative thoughts that the mind is generating. Also notice that it is the negative thoughts that are generating the emotional turmoil. Pain and exhaustion are direct experiences, while emotional turmoil is a secondary reaction. It’s an add-on that has the power to elicit many reactive emotions. So take the time to notice that this secondary reaction is being generated by negative thinking.
4. Acknowledge that, while the pain or illness may be unavoidable, the resistance to it is optional and happens in your mind. Ask yourself, “Is it absolutely necessary for me to resist what is happening right now? What would it feel like to let go of these resisting thoughts?”
5. Take the time to let your body feel the shift from negative thinking to a more neutral mindset. Negative thoughts may still try to intrude into the moment, but just ask yourself once again, “What would it feel like to let go of these resisting thoughts right now?” Don’t resist the resisting thoughts, however; that will only keep you bound by them. Be patient and don’t try to rush it. Being patient counters the fight-or-flight response as well.
6. Be sure to let your mind and your body feel the space between and underneath the negative thoughts, which this practice makes available. I cannot emphasize the importance of this enough. This practice makes available the experience of neutral space in the mind and the body. When applied constantly over time, it resets the emotional triggering caused by the mind to a more peaceful and free state.
7. Illness and pain can also generate future thinking like “Will this ever end,” or “What will my life look like in the future?” Or, even more painful, “What did I do to deserve this, and why is God doing this to me?” These are also thoughts that are resisting experiencing this moment. They are generated by fear and resistance and in turn create more fear and resistance. You may also feel some fear in letting them go, as if somehow they were going to protect you in the future. You are not being punished; life is just like this sometimes.
8. Repeat the above exercise as often as needed, probably many times every day. It can take time, though it doesn’t necessarily have to, to reset the mind’s fight-or-flight responses. The more consistent you are, the faster these old conditioned responses can be turned around. But it does take consistent practice.
9. Also, take some time to meditate every day. You can work with the thoughts that come up in meditation in exactly the same way that I have outlined here. Meditation done correctly can help tremendously in freeing yourself from the fight-or-flight response, as long as you don’t restrict the practice only to times of meditation. And remember, this practice is not only for your mind, it is also for your body. So take the time to let both the mind and the body experience those gaps of neutrality and peace that this practice makes available to you. It can be life changing.
With Great Love,
The above Q&A is excerpted from an online study course with Adyashanti. Learn about his current course on the Study Course page.
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