Staying Grounded on the Path to Enlightenment

A conversation with Adyashanti
by : 

David Cronin

April 1, 2013

As a retailer, I am always interested in finding ways to help my store grow. I try to stay abreast of what's happening in our industry—new product ideas, the latest books by recognized and up-and-coming authors, that sort of thing. If I am to stay in business, I know I have to be able to provide what the majority of my customers are looking for and do it as efficiently as possible.

The spiritual market is huge and continues to expand every year. A key element to this market is the concept of awakening, or enlightenment. Actually, the concept of awakening has been around for thousands of years but only in recent times has it become part of mainstream culture. More and more people are looking for information and understanding of this, at times, very confusing topic. What the heck is awakening? What does it mean to be enlightened? What will my day-to-day life be like if I am awakened?

I have read many books on the subject and have always found Adyashanti's teachings to be extremely clear and concise. His description of what awakening is and, equally important, what it is not, stands out among the plethora of material available.

Adyashanti began teaching in 1996 at the invitation of his Zen teacher of 14 years. He now runs the Open Gate Sangha, which offers satsangs, weekend intensives, silent retreats, and internet radio broadcasts. Adyashanti's reflections on enlightenment invite us to stop, inquire, and recognize what is true and liberating at the core of our existence. His name, "Adyashanti," means primordial peace.

I recently picked up Adyashanti's book, Falling Into Grace: Insights on the End of Suffering, and decided to read it from the perspective of a store owner. I wanted to know if my understanding of awakening could work for and benefit me, even as I handled the day-to-day challenges of running a business.

After reading his book, I still had some questions, which I recently had the wonderful opportunity to ask Adyashanti directly. He was able to clarify points I thought might be helpful to my fellow retailers. It is my sincere hope that the following interview helps you in this unique profession we love so much.

David Cronin: How do you define awakening?

Adyashanti: The most essential part of awakening, that which distinguishes it from the vast array of experiences, is that awakening has to do with identity. It is the shift of identity out of personality, ego structure, our bodies, our mental content—all of that—and into Being.

You can think of Being as consciousness. It is the essential shift that, while it transcends the body and mind, imparts a very visceral awareness of no longer being imprisoned by the sense of self, by the intellectual idea of self we have lived in. Only when we shift out of our sense of self do we realize how limiting that concept was—how tremendously tight and small it was.

We can have a whole variety of experiences, many of which are transforming to our identity, but at the end of the day, we still experience ourselves as something very familiar. With awakening, the core of how we perceive ourselves shifts.

The experience of awakening can be just a moment or it can be permanent, but even if temporary, you now know that awakening is no longer just a theory.

Cronin: What is it that actually awakens? The mind doesn't awaken, the ego doesn't awaken.

Adyashanti: As strange as this may sound, it is awakening that awakens. Consciousness becomes self-aware. Everyone has consciousness operating through them all the time. For the vast majority of people, that consciousness is not self-aware. Their ego structure thinks it owns consciousness. We say "I'm aware." As soon as the consciousness becomes self-aware, the identity leaves the ego structure and naturally returns to its own state. In the simplest terms, it is really just consciousness recognizing itself.

Cronin: The concept of awakening can seem very confusing sometimes. Is that due to the mind trying to understand an experience it is never going to have because it's not the mind that awakens?

Adyashanti: That's right. The most the mind can grasp is the memory of the experience and its idea of the experience. It can never grasp the actual experience.

When you give up looking within the content of your experience—emotions, feelings, thoughts in the head, and so on—you begin to notice consciousness. Now, that may imply that consciousness is somehow separate from the content, but it's not. The content also resides within the deeper truth.

Cronin: You also speak about how there is no thought that is ultimately true, that it is important to learn not to take our thoughts too seriously, not to get hooked by them. So let's say we have the thought, "Wow, sales have been way down for a few weeks now. I may have trouble paying all my bills," and a sense of fear arises. What do we do with that?

Adyashanti: What you have mentioned is a direct perception: 'I am not making enough to pay my bills." Thought then might go into strategy: "What is a wise way to respond to this problem?" That is a practical thought. The mind might also go into: "Oh my gosh, I'm never going to make it!" The mind can spin off into fear-based thought, which is not practical.

When I make the statement that no thought is ultimately true, I am saying it in a particular context. When we're in a conflicted mind state, we tend to try and find the one, true, correct, conflicted mind state that will solve everything, but the content of your experience will never tell you the truth of something. When you can rest in the state in which thought arises, your thinking becomes more orderly. Your thinking has a direct reference to what is actually happening, rather than what you think is happening. It takes on an intelligence that is actually coming from the source of consciousness.

Cronin: In Falling Into Grace, you speak about the prime illusion: that we believe we actually are what we think and what we believe. You recommend we look very deeply into the nature of our thoughts and emotions. This takes a lot of courage.

Adyashanti: It sure does. I will give you an image that helps one get clear about what one knows and what one believes. It's a gruesome image but I use it all the time. Take any belief you have; for instance, that "God is this," whatever "this" is. So there you are with your belief, but this God is not messing around. God, with a huge sword over your head, says to you, "Do you know what you are saying with absolute 100-percent certainty? Because if you are lying, either to me or yourself, even by one tenth of one percent, then first I will cut off the heads of everyone you love, and then I will cut off your head. Now, what do you know for certain?"

Cronin: Wow, I would say, "Nothing."

Adyashanti: That's right! We tend to live in our illusions, in those gray areas, that allow us to be off the hook. The God-with-a-sword image helps us get clear about what we believe and what we know. It takes all the gray area out. Most people walk around day-to-day living in their belief systems, in a dream state. We live in a culture that does that. Take something as simple as "so-and-so shouldn't have done that." We can get in a really good gossip session with our friends about it. But it's all theoretical. The truth is they did whatever it is they did. That's what's real. Everything else is just the story we tell ourselves.

We take something to be real that has no basis in reality. We are literally living in a waking dream. So yes, it does take courage to look within and see these things. Looking deeply like that is the beginning of the end of your world view. It takes either a lot of courage or a lot of desire.

Cronin: Let's talk about control. You mention in Falling Into Grace that our desire to be in control is one of the more basic ways we suffer, that by demanding things be different we are actually denying the truth of who we are. Yet, as stewards of our businesses, we often have to step in and exercise control, say, when an employee is stealing from us or being rude to customers. How do we understand this concept in the context of running a business?

Adyashanti: It is a paradox, isn't it? When you allow the moment to be as it is, it puts you back in touch with a deeper state of being. Normally when you get a sense that something feels wrong, you go into a state of reactivity and things get muddled. You can act from your reactivity, and it will have whatever effect that brings, which oftentimes has a conflicted energy to it. But when you can allow it to be as it is—including that part of you that wants something to be different—for even just a moment, without resistance, that allows you to touch upon the ground of Being. From that ground of Being, everything is eternally okay, better than you can possibly imagine.

What people mistakenly think is that this ground is the goal. It is not the goal. Rather, it is the ground from which a wise, more creative way to respond can arise. One doesn't just say, "Everything is okay," and not do anything. That would be a cop-out. But one does need to be able to simply pause and sense into this deeper field of Being, where everything is actually, totally okay.

Cronin: Surrender is also one of those states we seem to understand more as we go into it. It is so vital to awakening, yet if we are using surrender as a technique, then basically we are just back in control. You mention that the harder we try to get out of ego-consciousness, the deeper we dig ourselves in. What, then, is true surrender?

Adyashanti: It has to do with truth and humility. It's when you realize, "I don't know how to do this." If you resist that moment and think, "Oh my gosh, I don't know how to do this, and that's terrible," then you feel diminished. But if you step into "I really don't know," it's humbling, like a confession to the universe, and it opens you up, if it is real, without wanting anything particular to come from it.

Cronin: You have said that awakening, in one way, is actually pretty straightforward. You just have to want to know what's really true more than anything else. There are times when the intention is right there, more than anything else. And then there are other times when it's not. The mind has so many voices, so many distractions. It sometimes seems like the mind has a mind of its own.

There are times when the mind says, "You know, what I really want is to have comfort, to be loved, ice cream, whatever it is, and just add awakening to it." How do we strengthen the intention within ourselves to want to see what's really true?

Adyashanti: Well, it may sound counterintuitive, but we straighten that intention by having real love, real compassion for our humanity. It's not an unusual impulse to want to feel good when one is suffering. The ego is sometimes like an infant left alone in a room. It just doesn't know how to soothe itself. The more judgment or guilt or shame you have around it, the more it controls you.

The thing about guilt or shame is that it is actually an inverted form of arrogance. Let's say we do something that hurts someone, and we feel really guilty about it. We feel guilty because we think, "I actually can't believe that I would do something like that." But then humility drops in, and we get it: "Oh, I am a human being like everyone else, and we humans tend to make mistakes. When did I ever exhibit complete perfection?"

Until then, we are not able to move beyond it, because we are so caught up in our reaction to what happened. You can't heal anything you are pushing away.

Cronin: Some specialty store and wellness center owners also teach classes in various aspects of personal health and growth. What advice would you give on how to be a more effective and authentic facilitator?

Adyashanti: You used the right words, "effective and authentic." My teacher told me to teach only from my experience. It's one of those simple things that has a wide and broad effect. You are being sincere and real; you are not pretending to know something or to have experienced something you haven't. In that way, we don't have to worry about deluding someone. The other thing my teacher said is that if you ever get to the place where you cannot resist the temptations of power and authority, get out before you do something stupid.

Cronin: Thank you for your wonderful insights, Adyashanti. I have one more question for you: What do you hold sacred in your life?

Adyashanti: It may sound like a cliché, but the first thing that came to me is: Everything. The more time goes by, the older I get, the ordinary moments—the simple things in life—seem more and more sacred. In years past, it felt like the big experiences were sacred, but now it's just the ordinary moments. Having a cup of tea or just sitting with someone who wants to talk—moments like that. The irony is that for years we look for heaven or nirvana, when the whole time we are looking out from inside it.

David Cronin is a spiritual coach, writer, lecturer, and the owner of Changing Times Books & Gifts in West Palm Beach, Fla.