Are you more interested in finding happiness—or finding out what is true? This is the question that Adyashanti, an innovative spiritual teacher out of the Zen tradition and the author of a provocative new book from Sounds True entitled The End of Your World: Uncensored Straight Talk on the Nature of Enlightenment, asked his wife Mukti on their very first date.
This is the kind of question I love. It reminds me of a question I often like to ask meditators: What is the goal of your meditation practice?
For me the goal of meditation (and spiritual practice of all kinds) is wholeness or inclusiveness. What this means is that I am practicing not to achieve a certain chosen state—be it ecstasy or deep bliss—but instead, so that I can accept and embrace everything that I am and everything that is arising.
I have often met people on a spiritual path who say that the goal of their practice is to feel something in particular—usually peacefulness or happiness or some other positive state. And although this sounds nice, I find this approach problematic for several reasons.
1) Focusing on feeling a particular way can lead to what John Welwood calls “spiritual bypassing.” “Spiritual bypassing” means using spiritual ideals (like feeling peaceful) to bypass personal developmental challenges. For example, a friend of mine is terribly angry at her boyfriend for all kinds of really good reasons. He is not a very attentive listener and is unwilling to see many things from her perspective, instead simply trying to convince her of his view. Yet my friend is determined not to be angry. In her world view, her “practice” is to be understanding and forgiving and compassionate. Yet I know that, just beneath the surface, she is fuming. (I think she knows this, too.) She is “bypassing” her anger, and in the process is avoiding the growth that would come from confronting her partner in a constructive way. In the meantime, where is her anger going? Will it simply dissolve if she doesn’t acknowledge it? I don’t think so. When we bypass emotions in favor of “living our spiritual ideals,” we stuff these feelings into our body, where they hide out, simmer and wait to erupt.
2) When we’re seeking a particular feeling state, our spiritual path, which is supposed to free us, becomes another method of control. When we try to control the moment-to-moment experience of our lives by insisting that we feel a certain way, we end up telling ourselves things that are not true—i.e., that we are feeling something we are not actually feeling. (Again, I hear Adyashanti’s question in my ear: are we interested in discovering happiness or knowing what is true?) Instead of our spiritual path opening us to a fresh experience of each moment, we are now using spiritual ideals (like happiness or peace) as a control funnel through which reality is filtered.
3) If we’re hoping for positive mind states, we run the risk of abandoning our path when uncomfortable experiences surface and challenge our stated objective. If we use being “comfortable” or “peaceful” as a yardstick of our path’s success, then we might stop working with a particular practice just as it is beginning to do its work, revealing some hidden material that could prove to be the next step in our evolution.
One of the spiritual teachers who has spent more than five decades mapping what he calls “the transformative process” is Benedictine monk Father Thomas Keating. (This fall, Sounds True will be releasing a home study course with Father Thomas on centering prayer and the transformative process it catalyzes.) Father Thomas uses Christian language to describe the process of prayer and transformation, and yet I find his work to be completely universal and, interestingly, perfectly resonant with my own experience of meditation and transformation within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. According to Father Thomas, God could be called “the Divine Therapist.” When we rest in God’s presence, there erupts within us what he calls “an unloading of the unconscious.” If we are able to accept this unconscious material without repressing it or reacting to it, a further “evacuation” of unconscious material occurs. (I just love the use of the word “evacuation” in this context!) This leads to greater interior freedom and an increase in our overall capacity for awareness.
I recently had my own experience of an “evacuation,” which was quite dramatic. Last summer, I went on a solitary meditation retreat for 10 days in a cabin in Crestone, Colorado. This is the third solitary retreat I have been on, and I have learned from my other two experiences to enter retreat with an open and innocent mind—an attitude of “who knows what will happen?” About three days into retreat, I started having what I can only describe as a “panic attack” – my breathing changed and I started gasping for air as if my life were at risk. At first, I thought the panic attack had to do with a new house I had just purchased—or, more accurately, with my new mortgage. (The amount of the mortgage kept repeating over and over in my head as I panicked.) At the same time, it was clear to me that the panic I was feeling was about something deeper. In reality I was safe, in a lovely cabin, and I could afford my new mortgage. And yet, after three days of meditation practice, I was on my knees gasping for air for no reason I could name.
After several hours of gasping, I collapsed outside on the ground. I gave myself to the earth and to whatever process was unfolding in me. The insight that came later was that a core panic I’d been carrying inside since birth was being released from my being into awareness. Here on this retreat, I was finally ready for the somatic memory of my birth—a difficult delivery that was experienced by my infant self as a life-or-death drama—to come forward, be known, and be released.
What if the real goal of our spiritual path is to have the courage to face everything, and I mean everything, without turning away? Might there be a type of unshakeable peace and unshakeable happiness that denies nothing but instead welcomes every experience as exactly what is needed? Could that type of unconditional acceptance rightly be called faith?
In The End of Your World, Adyashanti talks about how he has worked with many students who have had breakthrough experiences of spiritual awakening, and how all of these students report that the experience is not what they had imagined. Adya comments that awakening has to be beyond our preconceived ideas, since we can only conceive of something based on past experiences. Spiritual awakening is a total shift in perception, completely unprecedented in our lives. According to Adya, when we awaken, our “world ends”— the world that is held together by our ideas of subject and object, of how the world functions, and of who we are in its midst. When Adya had his great spiritual awakening he says he “awoke from Zen,” meaning that even the tradition and its practices no longer defined his experience. What if any goal we can describe for our spiritual path will be outgrown? What if there is literally nothing we can hold on to, not even our maps and presumed destinations?