Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today my guest is Jeff Foster. Jeff teaches and shares from his own awakened experience, a way out of seeking fulfillment in the future and into the acceptance of “all this, here and now.” Jeff’s teaching style is direct and uncompromising, and yet full of humanity and humor and compassion. He belongs to no tradition or lineage and makes his teaching accessible to all.
In 2012, Jeff was voted one of world’s 100 most spiritually influential living people by the Watkins’ Review. With Sounds True, Jeff has written a new book called The Deepest Acceptance: Radical Awakening in Ordinary Life, and an accompanying audio program where he invites the listener to discover to discover “the ocean of who we are,” an awareness that has already allowed every wave of emotion and experience to arrive.
This is the second part of a podcast on Insights at the Edge that aired several months ago. In this second part on The Deepest Acceptance, Jeff and I spoke about the core challenge of being with discomfort and how this relates to radical awakening. We also about the deepest acceptance in terms of addiction and also in terms of physical pain and his perspective that there’s no such thing, actually, as unbearable pain. We also talked about illusions related to spiritual awakening as a permanent state of bliss and what “real spirituality” might mean in terms of truth telling and the end of denial. Here’s my conversation with Jeff Foster.
Jeff, you and I spoke a few months ago about your new book, The Deepest Acceptance: Radical Awakening in Ordinary Life. In that first conversation, we had a chance to talk some about some of what you mean by the deepest acceptance and also to hear a little bit about your own story becoming such a well-recognized spiritual teacher for somebody as young as you are, hosting so many different kinds of gatherings with different kinds of audiences—small audiences, large audiences—and now here in this second half of our conversation, I want to focus some on the subtitle of the book and some of the themes that you explore [with] “radical awakening in ordinary life,” and let’s start with this idea of radical awakening. How would you define that, radical awakening?
Jeff Foster: Well, it’s awakening now. You know, so many people that I meet, so many people that I’ve met over the years—and this was true in my own story years ago: I was waiting for awakening. I had made awakening into some kind of future goal. My story about myself was that I was someone who would one day become awakened. It’s almost like I was holding awakening outside of myself. I was holding it in the future. I’d made it into a goal. And so really what I did with this book is turn the whole thing around, turn the whole thing on its head. I talk about awakening as something that’s already here.
My basic message is that what we’re searching for on the deepest level, what we’re longing for, is actually already here. I know that, that has become a little bit of a cliché I guess in recent years: you are what you seek and you are already whole. But there’s such a profound truth to that. What we long for on the deepest level is actually already with us. It’s closer to us than breathing. It’s already so intimate with us. It’s actually contained in our present experience, in every thought, every sensation, every feeling. What we long for is presenting itself to us right now.
So, awakening is not so much about trying to get somewhere or trying to become awakened or trying to reach an awakened state; it’s more about this turning attention towards what’s already here. I talk a lot about what is already here, what’s already with us—the thoughts, sensations, and feelings that are already here that we so often ignore them. We ignore. We spend so much of our time ignoring the present moment, ignoring present experience, present sights and sounds and smells, in pursuit of some future awakening, some future enlightenment, some future success, future wealth, future peace even.
And so easily we end up ignoring life, actually. We end up forgetting who we are, which is inseparable from this moment. So my invitation is to just always, always, no matter what is happening, to turn toward what’s here, even when it’s the last thing we feel like doing. Even when what’s here seems uncomfortable or difficult. My invitation is to turn towards what’s here, to really begin to honor this living thing that we are, this present moment movement of life. So that’s what I call awakening. It’s awakening to life, to what’s here—not as some future goal, but as a present moment of possibility.
TS: You seem quite—and this is a strong word—critical, though, of seeking. Someone who might say, “I’m a spiritual seeker, I’m looking for something, some new teaching, some new ideas, etc,” that seeking is part of the problem. Would you say that’s true?
JF: I wouldn’t say seeking is the problem. From one perspective, it does seem like a problem. Sometimes that’s how people interpret what I’m saying a,s “Jeff, it sounds like you’re just telling us to stop seeking.” Well then I say to them, well, I mean if it was that simple, if was just a case of stopping seeking now, we would have done it already. Everyone would have already done it and we would all just be totally at peace and totally at rest. So I don’t want to make seeking into the enemy.
I think that’s one of the dangers here is that we talk about seeking, we talk about we’re always looking for something outside of ourselves, looking for something in the future, and that ends up taking us away from what’s here. I would say that that’s very much at the root of our suffering, is that attempt to escape what’s here. So the seeking mechanism—that’s what I call it in the book, it’s almost like a mechanism—which shows up in all parts of our lives: in our relationships, with addictions, with pain. We’re always trying to move away from the present moment. But we don’t want to make that into the enemy, or make that into the new problem.
Really, because this message is all about the end of having enemies. It’s all about deep acceptance. So we don’t want to say “Everything in this moment is allowed, except seeking.” We don’t want to say that because then we end up making seeking, making the urge to escape this moment into the new devil, the new enemy. And this is what I talk about in the book as well. That actually leads us to more suffering, because then we end up feeling, “Well, God, there’s something wrong with me for seeking. There’s something wrong with me for trying to escape this moment.”
TS: So how do you suggest people relate to that part of them? I mean, I’m imagining someone who’s listening to Insights at the Edge, and you know, I’ve heard from people who’ve listened to 150 podcasts in this series, and you could say to them, “Well they must be seeking something, they keep listening. They’re listening for something.” How do we relate to that part of us that does seem to be seeking, seeking for some new insights, new ideas, new teachings?
JF: Well, it’s all about honoring it. Really, that’s what I talk about is just this total honoring of whatever is arising in our present experience, whatever wave is arising in the ocean that we are. I think I was saying in the last podcast you know, really who we are is not who we think we are. Who we are is, you could say, this vast ocean, this vast oceanic space. Call it consciousness, awareness, presence, it doesn’t really matter which word you use. Who you are is this vast ocean in which waves are always arising and dissolving, rising and falling away—thought waves, sensation waves, feeling waves, even a wave of doubt or a wave of pain, or a wave of some kind of urge, some kind of urge to escape this moment, an urge to be free of this moment, an urge to become something in the future.
So this is all about honoring these waves, that’s really the core of my message is deep acceptance. And as I was saying in the last podcast, this acceptance is actually built in. This is an acceptance that is actually built in to your present experience. As the ocean, you are already allowing, accepting all of these waves are arising. So on the deepest level, even a wave of doubt, or a wave of fear, or even and urge, some urge to escape this moment, on the deepest level, even that wave is not your enemy as the ocean. There is a place in you for that urge. There’s already enough space in you. What you are is already vast enough to hold that.
So I think I was saying last time, I was talking a bit about resistance. I think that’s the word that people use quite a lot these days. We’re told that we shouldn’t resist the present moment and that resistance is the cause of our suffering. When there’s sadness or when then pain or when there’s fear, or even when there’s some strange energy moving in us, some strange wave that we can’t even name, we’re told that we shouldn’t resist it, that we should accept it, we should allow it, we should say yes to it but we shouldn’t resist it.
I’ve met so many people over the years, now, who are trying so desperately to not resist the present moment. This so quickly becomes some kind of vicious circle, because a wave of resistance appears in them, because this is one of the waves of life. All the waves of life, all the waves of the ocean, are allowed in you. So a way of resistance is something that can appear. So when you’re trying to not resist, what tends to happen is that a wave of resistance appears in you, and suddenly you feel that it shouldn’t be there. “This wave of resistance shouldn’t be here because I should be accepting all the time.” You know, “This wave of resistance is wrong or it’s bad.”
We can so quickly go into our stories about ourselves. You know, that we failed in some way. The story of ourselves is some kind of spiritual failure. You know, “I should be the accepting one, I should be the enlightened one. I should be the perfect spiritual seeker who never resists.” But actually, in the moment, that wave of resistance just wants to be honored. It’s life struggling to move in you. It’s not your enemy. It’s not a sign. I mean, this is really the core of it. This is really what I want to get across to people, is that if there’s a wave arising in you, even if it’s a wave of resistance, even if it’s a “bleecch” wave—you know, a yucky wave, a wave that you just don’t want to be there, that you’ve been told shouldn’t be there.
Really, what I want to get across to people is that that wave is not your enemy. As the ocean, that wave is part of you, it belongs in you. In a sense, it’s one of your children. As consciousness, you have many children and the wave of resistance, is one of your children. A wave of fear is one of your children. A thought is one of your children. And no matter how intense or how uncomfortable these children feel in this moment, they are your children. And as your children, they long to be embraced. They long to be loved. They long for your attention. I think it’s a beautiful way of talking about it: seeing thoughts, sensations, feelings, as your children.
So the invitation is always to remember your children. So for me, and this goes back to your first question actually, awakening. It’s got nothing to do with awakening from your children. I think that’s how we’ve tended to see it in the past. You know, I know that’s how I used to think of awakening. I used to think that it was about escaping thought, sensations, feelings—escaping pain, escaping sadness, escaping urges, escaping desires, escaping these waves. I used to think that awakening was all about moving away from the waves and towards the ocean.
As I was saying in my last podcast with you, through my experiences with my depression, eventually what I came to see is that awakening in a way, is actually the opposite. It’s not about escaping the waves. It’s recognizing yourself as the ocean, which is the home for these waves. You are the home for all of these little waves of life, all of your children. This really turns the whole search on its head. We’re talking about seeking. So what I would say is that what we’re really looking for—you know we say that we’re looking for love, wealth, success, we’re looking for enlightenment, we’re looking for some final state of consciousness, some final enlightenment in the future. I would say what we’re truly looking for, actually, underneath all of that, is home, is home. We’re all trying to come home.
So that that’s why I don’t want to criticize seeking. It’s really the search for home. I mean, how can you criticize anyone for looking for home? So what I’m really saying though is that the search for home, outside of this moment, there’s a kind of futility to it. It’s ultimately futile. It’s not wrong; it’s not a criticism or a judgment. But it’s not going to give you what you truly long for, which is this deep, unconditional embrace of this moment, which is the end of seeking.
The end of seeking actually is this moment. However far out that sounds, however paradoxical that sounds, what we’re actually seeking is this moment. And the funny thing about that is that we’re already here. We’re already here, we’ve always been here. And yet we’ve always been looking for home outside of here. And in the end we come to discover that we were always home. Our present experience is home. That actually, we are the home that we were always looking for. You are the home for thoughts. Thoughts have a home in you. Sensations have a home in you. Feelings, all kinds of feelings, feelings that we call positive and feelings that we call negative, they have a home in you.
So it’s funny, because in the beginning, we were looking for home. We said to ourselves, “One day I will be home. I will come home.” And this invitation, the invitation of my book, and this is the invitation that I offer people, is to really turn the whole thing on its head and just begin to remember your true home, which is here and now. You offer home to thoughts. You offer rest. You offer space. You offer stillness to all of your children. Even if one of your children—to come back to your question—even if one of your children is some strange urge or some uncomfortable feeling, even that has a home in you. Even that has a home in you.
TS: Now I want to talk, Jeff, about radical awakening in ordinary life in a context that I think is probably familiar to most people. A section of your book deals with addictions, and you also mentioned that yes, we can even awaken in the midst of one of our addictions. So let’s talk about that. Somebody could be addicted to any kind of substance—maybe it’s emotional eating, or smoking, or you know, we were talking about seeking, and you talk about how seeking can be an addiction. When we feel ourselves having, “Oh I know I’m in my addiction right now. I know it. I know it.” What do you suggest? How do I awaken in that moment?
JF: Well, as I say in the book, in a sense we’re all addicts, whether we are diagnosed with addiction or not, whether we call ourselves addicts or not. In a sense, every human being is an addict. We’re all addicted on some level, to some extent, to escaping this moment: to running away from this moment, to not feeling what we feel, to not allowing all of life to move in us. So on some level, we’re all addicts. Whether we use food to try to escape discomfort, or whether we use cigarettes, or alcohol, or sex—I mean anything. Meditation!
In a way, I think I used to be addicted to meditation. If at any time I ever felt anything remotely uncomfortable, I would sit down and meditate and try to escape it, try to get into some different state. So we can even use spirituality to escape. So in a sense, seeking and addiction always go together. I’d say they’re two words for the same thing: the attempt to escape this moment, the attempt to run away from this moment. So really, everything I say, again, it’s all about turning this on its head and turning attention back to this moment.
So even if what’s arising in this moment is a very uncomfortable wave—I was talking to someone a couple years ago and they were on one of my retreats and they were trying to get rid of their smoking addiction. I remember saying to this guy, I remember telling him, he was asking me what could he do. And I said, well, stop. Stop. Stop putting the cigarettes in your mouth. And so of course what happened was he tried this, of course, and so he was sitting there at the retreat and these incredibly intense waves of discomfort started to arise in him.
Previously he would have tried to escape that discomfort by reaching for a cigarette. That’s really the seeking mechanism, you know that’s really the seeking mechanism is that we feel some kind of discomfort, some wave of fear or sadness or pain, again even some strange energy in ourselves that we can’t even name, it just feels uncomfortable. It feels like it shouldn’t be there. It feels like some kind of threat. We’re so conditioned as we grow up to judge these waves and label these waves. We call these waves negative waves or bad waves or sinful waves, or even evil waves, you know, if maybe we’ve had religious conditioning, we might label some these waves in ourselves evil.
So really what we’re saying is these waves should not be here. So a huge wave of discomfort appears and we seek release, and so we reach out to the cigarette, or the alcohol, or the sex, or whatever it is to provide some kind of release and provide some kind of relief.
This is the thing: it seems to work. It seems to work. When you’re inhaling deeply that cigarette for a few blissful moments or minutes, all of your problems seem to disappear. What it ends up feeling like is actually the cigarette gave you what you really long for. So this is the beginning of the illusion, “the seeking illusion,” I call it. So it looks like the cigarette has some kind of power over you. It looks like the cigarette has some kind of power to give you what you long for, to give you oneness, to give wholeness. It looks like the cigarette has the power to remove your problems.
This is the actually the same thing we do with spiritual gurus. It’s really the same mechanism. You know, people talk about being in the presence of their spiritual guru and they’re in a lot of pain, in a lot of fear, a lot of discomfort, and they travel to India and they sit at the guru’s feet, and for a few blissful minutes, hours, days maybe, all their problems disappear and there’s just relief. There’s release. It looks as though the guru had the power to do that. It looks like this came from outside of myself, this completeness came from outside of me. This object or this person contains the completeness that I long for.
That’s of course what it seems like, but you know, as long as you’re looking for completeness outside of yourself, you’re never, ever going to be satisfied. So the cigarette doesn’t really give you truly what you long for. It seems to, for a brief period of time. It looks like your seeking is at an end, but then of course, what happens is that the high wears off—whether it’s the high from your cigarette, from your alcohol, from the sex, from the chocolate, or from your guru actually—the high wears off and the discomfort reappears. The pain reappears because it was never really addressed. It was never really met. So it’s really an incredible illusion that we fall into, that anything outside of ourselves can provide us with that deep acceptance, because really, that’s what we’re looking for.
TS: Now Jeff, it seems like a real key here, then, is being able to be with discomfort. That’s not easy for people.
JF: No, it’s not supposed to be easy. I mean, we’re not taught. We have to give ourselves a bit of a break here. No one’s really taught, we’re not taught how to be with our discomfort, Because you’re absolutely right, that’s the key to everything. The freedom that we long for, the peace that we long for, the love that we long for, we’re not actually ever going to find it outside of ourselves. It’s not going to come through the cigarette, or even through the external guru. What we’re really seeking and longing for is—again it’s become quite a cliché, but I think it’s so true—we’re seeking the love that we are. We’re seeking the peace that we are. We’re seeking the acceptance that we are.
TS: If you say that we haven’t really been taught or trained or educated to be with our discomfort, help me, what would be the kind of training or teaching, how can you teach me how to do this difficult thing?
JF: Well that is the core question. That is the question. So I was saying before is that we’re talking a bit about resistance. So a lot of these spiritual teachings talk about resistance and that we’re resisting the moment. I think I said this in the last podcast as well, it’s probably more true to say, it’s not that we’re resisting this moment. No one is actively resisting their discomfort. It’s probably more true to say that we just don’t know how to sit with our discomfort. We don’t know how to be with our discomfort. We don’t know how to be with our pain. We don’t know how to be with our sadness.
It’s understandable. Speaking from my own experience, when I was a child and I felt sad, and I expressed that sadness in some way, someone—my mother, my father, a teacher, they would try to make me happy, to try to get rid of the sadness for me. They would try to change my experience. This was a loving thing. I can’t blame anyone for this. This was an expression of love. Or when I was in pain: I remember when I was a child and whenever I was in physical pain, I would go and tell my mother and should would try and take the pain away, again, out of love.
Sometimes she would even get quite stressed and upset to see me in pain. So I guess what I started to learn in many different ways is that I’m not OK in my pain. It’s like mother can’t sit with me. She’s trying to change me. And this is not a judgment about my mother. I know she loves me and she always did and it was an expression of love, but this is what, as children, we start to learn. Father can’t sit with me when I’m sad, when I’m angry. Father is not able to sit with me when I feel doubt, when I feel confused. Teacher doesn’t— maybe they don’t know how. Maybe they never learned. They don’t know how to just be with me, to sit with me, to hold my hold hand in the midst of that experience and to not try and change me.
Maybe I never really wanted to be changed, you see. Maybe none of us do. Maybe all I was actually ever longing for was just for someone to be with me. I never learned that. I never learned that. That it was actually ok to be with sadness, to be with pain, to be with discomfort. So when I meet people these days on retreat and meetings and in my private sessions, I always say that it’s a really beautiful place to start, just to begin to admit that you don’t know how to be with sadness. Your whole life, you’ve been struggling to work out how. You’ve been struggling to find answers. You’ve been struggling to escape sadness. You’ve been struggling to find all kinds of solutions and you’ve been trying to work it all out intellectually: how can I be with sadness? And no one has ever worked it out. Because, maybe it’s not a question of how, you see? Maybe it’s not a question of how. So that can be a very beautiful place to just begin.
Really, we’re all beginners when it comes to this. We’re all beginners when it comes to this, you know, just to admit in this moment, “I don’t know how to be with this discomfort. I don’t know how to be with sadness. I don’t know how to be with this pain.” That can provide so much relief in itself. I always used to think that I needed to know how to be with pain, and then I would always beat myself up for not knowing how, especially when I was trying to be the enlightened person. I would beat myself for not knowing how to be with pain. So it can be such a relief to just begin to admit that you don’t know how to be with this.
TS: Now Jeff, what do you think of the idea, you know, many meditation teachers will direct people to pay attention at the sensation level, at the physical level and that that’s the way we can learn to deal with our discomfort is to get out of our stories and our thoughts and go to the sensation level. What do you think of that?
JF: Yes, I mean, that’s what it’s all about really. We come closer, that’s how I like to talk about it. Life always invites us to come closer, closer, closer. Life invites you to stay, stay with it. Life just says, “Stay with me. Stay with me. Stay with me. Even if in this moment you don’t know to stay with me, then just stay with that, because I’m there as well. I’m there even in that feeling in this moment that you don’t know how to stay. I’m there. So stay with that.”
So it’s totally an invitation to come out of our stories, as you say, come out of our epic stories. I’d like to talk about those epic stories. Life in the moment is always vastly simpler than thought makes it out to be. For example, I talk to a lot of people who are in physical pain. I used to volunteer in a hospice and there were some people there who were in a lot of pain. Sometimes I’d talk to people in my Skype sessions or one-to-one, in-person sessions. They’re trying to bring some acceptance to physical pain and I think physical pain can be one of the hardest, one of the hardest waves, one of the most difficult waves to bring acceptance to.
So my invitation to begin with is to come out of your story of pain, your identity as the victim of pain, to come back to the—as you said, the actual sensations in the body. Let’s for a moment drop our story, drop our assumptions, let’s for a moment even drop the word “pain” because these words are very loaded words. They’re very heavy, these words. The word “pain” carries so much, carries so much, you know?
So even when we call this “pain” —we look toward the sensations in the body and we call it “pain,” or we call it “discomfort,” or we call it “fear” —already we’ve added a layer that doesn’t need to be there. We’re already begun the journey away from our present experience, even to begin to call this something. That’s what we’re doing all the time. We’re always labeling our present experience. We label this “fear,” we label this “sadness,” we label this “doubt.” It’s like we’re using these words that we’ve learnt—actually they’re not even our words, these are someone else’s words. These are you parents’ words. These are your teachers’ words. These are not first-hand words. These words didn’t come directly from your present experience. These words were given to you.
So my invitation is always to return to actual, first-hand, real-time experience. So let’s for a moment drop the word “pain,” or the word “doubt,” or the word “sadness,” and let’s become curious about what is actually here, about this mystery that we are. We don’t even know that it’s pain yet. Whatever is here, it’s alive. It’s a sensation. It may be intense, it maybe be uncomfortable, but it’s alive. It’s moving. Even to call it “pain,” can somehow make it into some kind of fixed thing. You know, giving it a label, giving it a word, makes it fixed somehow.
Actually, when we return to our present experience, we find it’s a living thing. It’s changing, it’s moving, moment to moment. It’s never the same from one moment to the next—it’s like a dance. So sensation is like a dance. When you tell the story of pain, or “I’m in pain,” or “This is pain,” or “I’ve got pain in my leg,” it makes it sound like a lump. It’s fixed. Like it’s there and it’s separate from you. It always has the quality. Calling it something makes it sound as though it’s separate from you. So this is the invitation just to begin to realize that beyond the word “pain,” this dancing, alive, ever-changing, moment-by-moment sensation, these are the waves.
We come back to the waves. These are the waves of life, waves of consciousness arising and dissolving in you. So pain, actually, what we call pain, when we come back to the sensation, they’re waves of sensation, arising and dissolving in you. Pain arises and dissolves in you. You can’t really say that pain is happening to you. This is what I talk about in the book. I try to pull apart our experience of pain. We say, “Pain is happening to me,” but actually when we begin to return to our present experience, all we can really find—and this is all I’m really interested in—is what can I actually find in this moment? What can I actually find when I take a fresh look in this moment?
What I find is sensation appearing in what I am. So then I begin to know myself. I begin to recognize myself as who I truly am, as the capacity, this space, this ever-present, wide open space that is actually allowing the pain, it’s holding the pain, in this moment. What I am is the capacity for pain. And that totally takes me out of my story of myself as the victim of pain. Because in the story, we have a past and a future of pain, you see. Actually all we’re ever truly facing is a moment of pain. That’s a really beautiful way to say it. You know, all we’re actually facing is a moment of pain. It’s never bigger than that. It’s never actually bigger than that.
Now, it can seem much bigger than that when we go into thought, the thought story. Because the thought story is always about past or future. So then we end up moving from an instant, a moment of pain, a moment of sensation which is allowed to move in us. We move from that to a past and future of pain, and that’s huge. We move from the simplicity of this moment to the story of ourselves—and I call it “the epic story” because now you’re in a past and future, now you’re talking about a long history of pain. You’re talking about last week’s pain, you’re talking about yesterday’s pain. And now you begin to talk about yesterday’s pain and now you begin to talk about tomorrow’s pain and next week’s pain.
And thought is so creative, it can even push it to a lifetime of pain. And that’s incredible: we can move from a moment of pain—which is really all we’re ever experiencing in our direct experience—we move from a moment of pain to a lifetime of pain, to a history of pain, to a lifetime of pain, in quicker than a moment, really, in thought. Thought spins that story. And that’s the beginning of suffering, I would say. And that’s the difference between pain, present moment pain, and suffering, which is our story about pain. Because that’s what becomes so heavy, that’s what becomes so impossible to handle is yesterday’s pain and tomorrow’s pain and next week’s pain.
So then we’re sitting here, trying to handle tomorrow’s pain, trying to handle next week’s pain, trying to control a lifetime of pain. That’s huge. That’s what becomes so exhausting, and so depressing. Your epic story of pain, your identity as the victim of pain, that’s the epic story. “I’m the victim of pain struggling to overcome pain, at war with pain, being attacked by pain” —it’s a lifelong fight against pain.
Actually, you never experience that directly. If we’re truly interested in truth, in the truth of this moment, then we have to be interested in what’s actually here. So we come out of the epic story of my fight against pain, my battle with pain, yesterday’s pain, a lifetime of pain, and we return to present experience and begin to notice, to acknowledge, to honor, what’s actually here, and to remember ourselves as the capacity, the present moment capacity for pain. The ocean, the vast ocean in which this present-moment wave of pain is being allowed. That’s a huge shift in identity from the victim of pain—me and my pain, the story and time—to this present moment awareness which is actually who I really am.
TS: Now Jeff, you make a very interesting point in the book that there’s no such thing as unbearable pain. And I was thinking about this, I was thinking, could I reflect on any situation in my life where I felt unbearable pain, and I was thinking of a situation not very long ago where I was on this special diet, and on this special diet, I wasn’t able to have a nice, warm, sweet, caffeinated beverage that I really enjoy. I was driving on the highway. I was starting to feel, “I’m going to pull off the highway and get this beverage.” And so here it was, and the desire to do it reached a point where I thought, “Oh my god, this is unbearable.”
So here we have the person who’s reaching for the cigarette, or reaching for whatever substance, and they’re reaching a point where there’s this felt sense that this is unbearable, I can’t take it. But yet, it’s clearly not unbearable because we bear it. So tell me what you think about that moment where you think you’re hitting unbearable pain. Maybe people think that’s a ridiculous example, and in a way it is a ridiculous example, it’s just an example from my own recent life story.
JF: Actually, I don’t think it’s a ridiculous example. I mean, the mind is infinitely creative, and we can suffer over anything. That was my special skill for most of my life was being able to make myself suffer over absolutely anything: the tiniest, tiniest thing, and life would become unbearable.
We could laugh about it and say it’s just this desperate urge for a drink, but really this is the mechanics of suffering we’re talking about. This is what thought does. This is what it does. It latches on to anything. It will do it over a drink. It will do it over a broken fingernail. Or it can do it over someone you love dying. But the mechanism is always the same. This is really what I talk about in the book. Ultimately, we can control broken fingernails, and we can’t control those we love dying—as much as we would love to, as much as we would love to.
You see, the mechanism of suffering—whether it’s suffering over an unobtainable drink or it’s suffering over a diagnosis of cancer or something—the mechanism of suffering is always the same. The mechanism of suffering is always the same. It’s the attempt to escape this moment, the urge to escape this moment, trying to escape this moment. So sometimes, it can feel unbearable. And also, from my own experience—many times in my life, the present moment has felt totally unbearable. Like, “That’s it, it’s over, I’m going to die. I can’t take it anymore.” It feels overwhelming. “I’m going to be crushed by this. This is going to destroy me. I’m about to die.”
That’s the point where life can take you: you feel as though you are about to—you are certain, in the moment, you are absolutely certain that it’s over. That’s not pretend. Sometimes the waves of life can be incredibly intense. So this is the thing: the story would be, “This is overwhelming. This is overwhelming.” In reality, present experience can never be truly overwhelming. Precisely because, because who you are as the ocean, who you are as the ocean is allowing these waves, no matter how intense the waves are, no matter how overwhelming they feel. And they can feel overwhelming. No matter how overwhelming they feel, in the moment, who you are as the ocean is not overwhelmed by those waves. It’s holding those waves. It’s allowing those waves.
So if the moment ever truly became overwhelming, if it ever truly reached the point where it was overwhelming, you would not be there to know it. There’s an infinite intelligence here at work; the body, the body is so intelligent. If it ever became truly overwhelming, you would go unconscious. You’d pass out. That’s how it works.
So prior to that point, it may feel totally overwhelming, but it’s not overwhelming because who you are as consciousness is supporting it, is allowing it, however intense it is or painful it is or uncomfortable it is. Who you are in the moment is not yet overwhelmed. It’s a great comfort, in a way, to begin to realize that: that a wave can feel overwhelming. I used to experience a lot of fear in my life and waves of pure terror. In the moment, they would feel like, “This wave is about to crush me. This wave is about to destroy me.” But actually in the moment I realize now that who I am—which is who I was, who I was, who I am, which never really changes. Who you are is who you are as the ocean—you are always that. So who you are as the ocean is supporting this wave. It’s allowing this wave. It’s said yes to this wave. So you could never reach the point where life is truly overwhelming.
So that’s a real comfort and a real relief, actually, to realize that. So then, I mean, that takes the real fear out of life. That you’re never going to find a wave in present experience, you’re never going to find a wave in present experience that on some level hasn’t been allowed by the ocean that you are. You’re never going to meet a wave that is not allowed in you. You’re never going to meet a thought, sensation, sound, feeling, that is not allowed in you. That’s huge, you know? To begin to understand that, to begin to discover that, to begin to just sit with that, you know, to just sit with that and start to notice these thoughts, sensations, feelings, arising in us. They are all allowed to be here.
Really, we’re not taught that. What we’re taught is that we’re somehow split beings, that there are some waves that we should feel and other waves that we shouldn’t feel. There’s some thoughts that we should have, other thoughts that we shouldn’t have. Some feelings are OK, some feelings are not OK. Some feelings are spiritual, some feelings are unspiritual. Some feelings are holy. Some feelings are evil. And we begin to realize that actually, we are not split in this way.
As the ocean, you are the capacity for all of life. All of life has a home in you, the good and the bad, the light and the dark. We always used to see spirituality as a fight against the dark. Fight the dark and reach the light. And this really turns the whole thing around and what this is saying is that you are the light. And these waves in you—just to mix metaphors, the ocean and the waves, the light and the darks—but these waves appearing in you, even a wave of pain or a wave of fear, is not inherently dark. Maybe it was just never allowed to come into the light, the light that you are. Maybe you never allowed it. Maybe you had forgotten who you were so you weren’t allowing these poor little waves, a wave of doubt, a wave of fear, a wave of pain. Maybe you weren’t allowing them to express themselves in you, so they seemed dark. They seemed dark, but only because they were being pushed out with the light that you are into the darkness.
So this is really an invitation to finally begin to allow this poor little unloved—see they’re not really dark, they’re unloved, this poor little unloved waves to begin to come into the light and to find their home in us. Even if it’s a wave of—you’re sitting in a car, there’s all this discomfort coming up and then there’s this thought, “Well, you know, if I were to have a coffee, or the cigarette, or whatever it is—the sex, the chocolate, if I were to have that, this would go away.” So we start to realize that it’s all about trying to make this go away. It’s not about the cigarette; it’s not about the coffee. It’s not about the spiritual guru. It’s all about trying to push away our children. The invitation is stop pushing your children away because it’s never going to give you what you long for. That’s not what you truly long for is to push away your children, because that’s where it all begins. You actually long for your children.
TS: You have a great quote in the book, Jeff, that I’d love to hear you comment on, and the quote is: “Real spirituality is the end of denial.”
JF: It’s all about telling the truth. So what does that mean? What does it mean to tell the truth? So what I would say is that truth is not a concept; it’s not something that you learn. It’s not something that you find in books. It’s not something that you reach through logic. I mean that is a kind of truth, it’s a valid truth but it’s not the kind of truth I’m talking about. It’s not the kind of truth that you really long for. What I would say truth really is, is the truth of this moment. What is the truth of this moment?
So that kind of truth is a living truth. That’s the kind of truth that we’re really looking for: a living, vibrantly alive, ever-changing truth. So it’s the truth of this moment. So then we begin to look at this moment: what is actually here? What’s the living truth? What do we actually find in this moment? What’s living here? So we find thoughts coming and going. We find sensations dancing. We find all kinds of feelings coming and going. We find the sounds of this moment. The sound of rain falling. The sound of breathing. The sound of an air conditioning unit. So this moment is rich with truth. It’s full of truth. Not the kind of truth that the mind is necessarily interested in. But this is the kind of truth that you long for.
So then, it’s all about admitting the truth. I love this word, “admit.” I think I say this in the book as well. This is a lovely word, to admit, because it gets right to the core of it. Admit. Admit the truth. So the word has two meanings: to admit. One meaning is “to tell the truth”—if you admit, you tell the truth. But the second meaning is “to allow in.” If something is admitted—you know like maybe in the olden days, before I was born, you used to get a ticket when you went to the movie theatre, and it said, “Admit one.” So if you have a ticket, you are admitted, you are allowed in. So admit also means “allow in.”
So this is the key. I would say this is what meditation is really all about. Meditation is not about trying to get into some state. It’s not about trying to become something. Meditation isn’t really about seeking. Meditation is actually about the end of seeking. True meditation is about this admitting in both senses—true meditation is admitting in both senses. So it’s telling the truth, so it’s beginning to notice the truth of this moment, noticing thoughts coming and going, noticing sensations dancing, noticing feelings—not trying to change them, not trying to manipulate them, not trying, actually, to become anything, not even analyzing what’s here. It’s noticing, admitting, telling the truth about what’s here.
And then—and this is the beauty of it—in admitting the truth of this moment, of these thoughts, these sensations, this discomfort; in turning our attention and acknowledging this wave, this wave of discomfort or this wave of joy, in admitting that wave, in telling the truth about it and admitting it, what we’re also doing in that moment is admitting that that wave is already admitted. We’re admitting what is already here. We’re admitting what has already been admitted into us. And that’s why meditation is really is so powerful. Meditation, in the sense that I’m talking about it, this present moment noticing.
This is the thing: this kind of meditation, to the mind, is not particularly interesting. The mind goes, “Well, so what? So what? This moment isn’t particularly interesting. It’s sitting on this chair, breathing, it’s not particularly interesting.” The mind wants something. It feels that there is something missing here. Lack. I talk a lot in the book about lack, how really all of our seeking is based on a sense of lack and trying to fill that lack with substances, with achievements, with money, with spiritual experiences. But really that lack can never be filled by stuff, because really, what that lack is inviting us to is this deeper acceptance of this moment.
So in just beginning to turn our attention to what’s here, which isn’t very interesting for the mind, but actually it’s a miracle. The mind can’t see it, maybe, because it’s too busy trying to find something. Actually just noticing this present moment, thought, sensations, feelings. You’re noticing something incredible. You’re noticing something huge, something vast. You’re noticing that this thought, or this sensation, or this feeling, you’re noticing that it’s here, but also that it’s already been admitted. It’s allowed to be here. That’s huge. You’re discovering deep acceptance. Noticing a thought is noticing that that thought is already allowed to be here. Noticing a feeling is noticing, is acknowledging that that feeling is already allowed to be here. And that’s huge. That’s not nothing. That’s everything.
TS: Now Jeff, one of the interesting part of hosting this interview series and being the publisher at Sounds True is that I get to spend time with people like you, and you and I have gotten cozy with each other—I feel open and friendly with you, and really actually consider you a friend. And we were joking before this conversation started that a mock title for you work on The Deepest Acceptance would be The Deepest Deflation. And we were joking about this title because you have this incredible effect, often, on listeners and people in the audience, in that you deflate their ideas about spiritual accomplishment and spiritual achievement and how just incredibly fabulous and wonderful the enlightened me is going to be. And I wonder, as a note just to end on, if you could speak about our mock work together, The Deepest Deflation.
JF: [Laughs.] The Deepest Deflation. Well, yes, you see, we’re always looking for the next high. It’s kind of an addiction: as I said, we can be addicted to spiritual stuff as much as we can be addicted to alcohol or drugs or chocolate. We can so easily become addicted to the next spiritual high. We start seeking that next big experience. We want the excitement, we want the fireworks, we want the big enlightenment. And then you start to see actually, it’s all for me. It’s all about me. It’s about me and my experiences and me and my enlightenment, me and my high.
This was my experience years ago. I had all of those experiences. I had the big spiritual highs. You know, you meditate for hours, or you sit there in choiceless awareness and suddenly, you have the fireworks. You have the big experience of bliss, this intense bliss, and you feel as though it’s never going to end. You think you’ve reached the pinnacle of spiritual evolution and you’re never going to suffer again—and maybe it lasts for a few hours, a few days, a few weeks, maybe. Maybe. This is wonderful. This is part of life, but it doesn’t provide what we really long for.
All the events, the experiences, the highs, the excitement, the bliss, they are experiences and they come and go. And even the most intense bliss, which I’ve experienced, which I think many people who have been spiritual seekers for awhile, they’ve touched these experiences of bliss and peace, experiences of oneness, and experiences of no thought. But these experiences pass and on some level we know. We know that’s the nature of this reality. The Buddhists have always been reminding us: everything is impermanent, and on some level we know it.
We know that even the most orgasmic spiritual experience, the fizzy excitement is beautiful, but it has to pass. And on some level we know it. That’s why I love these yin/yang symbol in the half dark and half light, and there’s the dot of dark in the light and the dot of light in the dark. That symbol to me is really saying is, there aren’t really any opposites in life. The opposites interpenetrate each other, so even in midst of the most intense bliss, on some level there’s that dark dot, that dark circle. On some level, you know that the opposites interpenetrate each other—even in the midst of that intense bliss, you know about the passing of the bliss. You know it. You know it.
So the bliss contains that. This reality, this seemingly dualistic reality is in perfect balance. The bliss contains loss, it has to. It contains loss. From one perspective, that’s tragic for the seeker. That’s tragic because the seeker can’t hold onto anything. The seeker can never come to rest. Finally, they find the final bliss, and it passes, and they can’t come to rest. When will with the seeker come to rest? They can’t come to rest. When will the seeker finally be able to hold what they were always seeking and keep it? As I said, the Buddhists have been telling us, that’s the nature of things. The sand slips through our fingers, the water slips through our fingers, and the bliss passes.
The ultimate enlightenment experience passes, and then we long to have it back. We want it back. Where did it go? Where did my bliss go? Where did my excitement go? I want to get it back, and we start looking for it again and the cycle carries on and carries on. So when will we come to rest? I mean, what the seeker is really looking for is rest. So the story is when I finally get what I’m seeking, when I finally find what I’m looking for, and hold on to it and don’t lose it, then I can come to rest.
What I would say is that isn’t the kind of rest that we truly long for because it goes against the nature of experience. It goes against the nature of life. It goes against our own nature. So the kind of rest we are truly looking for is the rest of the ocean. That’s the true rest. But it’s not the kind of rest that the seeker imagined. It’s not a future rest. It’s not, “One day I will rest.” You see, the ocean that you are is already at rest. It’s always at rest, even in the midst of a storm. Even when the waves are big, violent crashing waves, even when there’s a storm in the ocean, the ocean itself is resting. Normally we think of rest as, “Oh I have to get rid of the storm, I have to get rid of these waves. I have to get rid of this sadness or this pain or this discomfort and then there’ll be rest.” But that’s a conditional rest.
That’s not the kind of rest that we really long for. We long for this unconditional rest of the ocean. The reason the ocean is at rest is not because it managed to get rid of the waves. It’s not because it deleted the waves. It’s not because it went to war with the waves and won. It’s not because it managed to control the waves. It’s not because it managed to get the waves that it wanted and keep them. The true rest of the ocean is that knowing, that these waves are allowed in me, in this moment. These waves are allowed in me.They are deeply allowed in me. No matter what the waves are doing—whether they’re soft, gentle waves or big, strong waves, whether they’re waves of joy, bliss, or whether that bliss disappears and there’s a wave of sadness or there’s a wave of doubt—all of these waves are beloved. All these waves are your children as the ocean.
That’s the true rest. That’s the true rest that we really long for. And it’s not dramatic. I’m not talking about the fireworks. Fireworks come and go. And there’s so many people that I’ve met over the years, and again this was my experience as well, they go out and they have the spiritual fireworks. They go and they visit teachers. They get the Shakti and the big movements of energy, but then they think that’s it. This is what I’ve been looking for. But the nature of these waves is that they want to pass, they long to pass, they’re alive. This is a living thing we’re dealing with. Then people get so disillusioned and then they suffer so much because they had the bliss. They had the excitement and they thought it was going to last forever and then it passed.
Then there was some kind of mourning. They grieved over the loss of their bliss. Then they tried to get the bliss back and it becomes so exhausting, I think. It becomes so exhausting, this attempt to manipulate our experience, this attempt to hold onto the waves. You have to hold on to a wave of bliss, to hold on to a wave of excitement, to hold on to something that naturally wants to pass, or, to try and push away a wave. To push away a wave of sadness, to push away a wave of pain, a wave that naturally want to be here and that will naturally pass.
So it’s so exhausting, just going to war with a natural flow of things. These waves, it’s the most natural thing in the world that these waves arise, and it’s the most natural thing in the world that these waves fall: a wave of joy, or a wave of doubt, a wave of excitement, that’s allowed in you. A wave of boredom, that’s also one of your children. That isn’t a particularly popular wave, it’s not one of your popular children, but it is your child and it’s beloved to you. On some deep level maybe you forgot, maybe you knew it long ago. Maybe you knew it long ago, these are your children, maybe you’ve just forgotten. So that’s the kind of rest that we really long for.
It is, in a sense, a kind of deflation. It’s the deflation of the ego, it’s the deflation of the seeker, but it’s also deep rest. It’s deep rest and it’s deep peace. And it’s the love. It’s the kind of love that we were always longing for, the love of ourselves, the love of every thought. The love of every sensation, the love of the excitement, of course, of course, but also the love of the passing of excitement.
TS: You deliver it Jeff!
TS: The Deepest Deflation! The Deepest Acceptance is the new book by Jeff Foster from Sounds True, Radical Awakening in Ordinary Life, and in addition to these ideas being presented in a book form, Jeff has also recorded with Sounds True a six-session audio learning series on The Deepest Acceptance: Radical Awakening in Ordinary Life. And it’s true, Jeff, becoming friends with you has been one of the great delights of my position here at Sounds True, so thank you, thank you for that. Thank you for your open-heartedness.
JF: Awww. Thank you so much Tami. Thank you. Thank you.
TS: SoundsTrue.com. Many voices. One journey. Thanks for listening.