You have been practicing for 10/15/20 years and you are not there yet? I do not mean 10-minute mindfulness sessions before breakfast or meditation as a stress reliever or social pastime (although they are good in their own right). You are a retreat junkie, you spend a lot of time practicing, you realize you have indeed changed, you might have even had peak awakening experiences, but you remain attached to a particular self. Why is that?
Text © Anastasia Gosteva
Two years ago (the text was written in 2015), when I was translating into Russian this interview by Mukti, wife of Adyashanti I was struck by her words that she was overwhelmed by a yearning to discover herself as an awakening. Around that time, I also had a couple of phone conversations with my master who kept asking me, «Why haven’t you made the whole journey? Why are you delaying and wasting the opportunity that my physical presence gives you? Why haven’t you awakened yet?»
I was perplexed. His questions confused me, as he was the person who repeatedly told me over the years that the Doer can never awaken. Didn’t he tell me that awakening happens by itself, as a blessing and a gift, that it cannot be attained? That craving for awakening comes from the Ego, and only exhaustion of all desires paves the way to sudden awakening?
Before I met him, I really wanted to be awakened, even better — to reach final realization (in a way it is understood in dzogchen), but from the very beginning he showed it was a desire of the mind. So about four years later I completely ceased thinking about enlightenment. There was only practice. There was no goal. No craving. Practice was sometimes coupled with bliss, but mostly it was quiet and clear and I thought I was regressing. My mind could not point out any «development». I did not expect anything in particular.
And then the awakening happened for the first time. I was sitting in the ashram of my master when all the well-known things around me transformed in a split second. The world became alive. Everything around me sprang to life — the chair in which I was sitting, the floor, the carpet and the hall itself. Every inch of space around me was alive, it shone and pulsated with primordial love compared to which all that we conventionally call “love» is just a subtle hint. Every speck of dust in the column of light in front of me was filled with exuberance.
The hall was alive and had a very important role — to care for us during the practice. “Who takes care of you?“ I asked it. “The master,“ was the answer. But the hall itself was the master, just like the rest of the reality, including myself — I was inseparable from the master. He was not a human being, but rather a manifestation of inherent nature of the reality.
There were no borderlines at all. I was still cognizant of this sort of my body sitting in the same chair, but there was no difference between my body, that chair and the currant bush outside the hall. I was everything, I was nothing and I still retained a somebody, a thin sliver of self, a hint of separate existence.
All questions produced answers as knowledge poured straight into my heart from nowhere. Rituals were instantly given meanings as the reasons for their appearance became visible. If an apple is as alive as myself, it is only natural to greet and bless it before its flesh dissolves into mine. If the hall is as alive as myself, it’s clear why all martial arts masters I know bow when they enter or leave it — we all greet each other, don’t we?
That was unbelievably simple and obvious. It was so natural that compared to it, my regular life did look like a strained dream. At the same time, it was clear there was no difference between that state and my regular life.
By evening, I slid from this shining conscious emptiness back into my regular state — the self returned (and that transition also went unnoticed). However, it was different this time — my attachment to the self became weaker and its shadow aspects accumulated over numerous lives became more prominent.
It was a powerful and at times scary experience. It became clear why psyche under normal conditions would block such recollections — if identification with the ego is strong, bearing witness to these shadow aspects may be too much for it.
Some time later another awakening happened, and it was totally different. This time, there was no self left at all, so «nothing happened to nobody» would be a more fitting description. But that state only lingered for two days.
Every time, awakening lasted longer, but Self would nonetheless return.
So now the master demanded an answer why I could not awaken fully. My confusion lasted a week before a realization dawned that the master did not expect an answer. He wanted me to ask this question MYSELF. But WHY?!
This question totally transfigured my perception of myself and my practice. Previously, I would see my unawakened state as the default, a given. It was a U-turn: the state was unnatural and there must have been reasons for it. It was not an intellectual discovery, but rather an internal overturn. Reference points shifted 180 degrees.
That was the most interesting moment when I discovered there were parts of my Self that did not want any awakening! They hung on to their suffering for dear life. They wanted to suffer, be miserable, fall ill, complain, be disillusioned, live in fear, tension and strife — and that was their only modus operandi. There was no other way for them to live!
I noticed that whenever the master came in for another evening conversation, these parts would listen to him like teenagers listen to their nagging parents. «C’mon, yak on about this enlightenment of yours, I’ll stand it for half an hour and get back to my life.»
Thus there is always a divide and a lie inside me — I seem to be practicing, but deep down it’s almost a lip service. It’s as if there were a compact inside me — while a part of me is meditating, others are patiently biding their time, an hour or a month, before they can go wild in samsara.
Their antics were not spectacular — they did not go binge-drinking or partying. They were too smart to stick their neck out. They kept such a low profile that I failed to spot them even once in many years of meditation and 7 years of practice with my master.
I watched them as if in a movie theater and could not believe I had been so blind.
I told my master about it. «Yak on», he chuckled. «Good that you’ve finally noticed it. Congratulations!»
«But what do I do with these parts? »
«Nothing,» he shrugged. «Isn’t it time to stop doing?» And with that, he went back to the house.
All hell broke loose the next day. In my remaining three weeks with the master, I went through all my childhood diseases. Anger, rage, fear, grievance and animal horror also welled up in me…
So why haven’t you awoken yet? The truth is, you don’t want it. Deep down, where you prefer not to look, you are okay with not having awakened. In your heart, you accepted it. Got used to it. You accepted suffering – and you feel GOOD in this suffering. Then meditation becomes another way of coping with such a state of affairs.
Okay, you say, suppose that’s right. But how do I know which parts of me accepted it?
My experience is that it’s largely a mystery. We do not really choose when to see that. I tried nudging my students to discover these elements (and I realize now, it was a subtle manifestation of my ego and inattentiveness), but such straightforward approach is futile.
But the penny will never drop if there is no intention to see. It’s like catching glimpses of the sun between the clouds – we cannot make the clouds part, but if we keep looking at our feet, we may easily miss the moment.
Below are my observations that might help you start seeing those aspects at the right time.
I have no doubt great masters of the past and the present have phrased it better than I can. But the present text has gone through this body and this mind, and I trust Existence – so it could prove useful to someone.
1. What you need is Mom and Dad, not some awakening
Spiritual practice is a great compensatory strategy. A newborn child needs nothing but the feeling of total acceptance, basic security and love. All its attention is unconsciously focused outside, looking for contact with those who can provide love and acceptance. It is the pre-rational stage of ego development , symbiotic and impulsive (as it is called in the vertical development model). I have noticed that many Russian meditation practitioners have numerous traumas associated with this stage.
The lion’s share of issues experienced by my students stems from these non-integrated early aspects. What they need is not one hour per week of meditation in a class, but rather several months in a retreat center under the guidance of an experienced master (if not psychotherapy). Chances are, at first they will project their mothers and fathers onto the teacher – in guided meditation traditions it happens just like in psychotherapy. John Welwood explores this phenomenon in detail in his writings on spiritual bypassing.
Often these people are well-compensated and quite successful socially, some of them are even practicing psychologists. Well-developed compensatory strategies and psychological defenses can help one adapt to the society, but will stand in the way of awakening.
Master often says he has no students, only children. I had thought it to be a metaphor, until I realized he was stating the obvious – none of his students came as adults. They all came with their childhood traumas which they projected onto him. And expected him to replace their parents. Instead of meditating, they spend years and decades, unconsciously settling familial disputes with the master.
Indeed, meditation helps us discover ourselves as more than the self, as the ever-present luminous and empty wakefulness. But that first requires forming a healthy and strong ego. Accepting it. Discovering it. Loving it. One cannot overcome something one doesn’t know and cannot manage. «Three-year olds are not allowed into enlightenment because they won’t survive it. Will you grow up!,” the master once told me.
If you have been practicing for many years and you haven’t awakened yet, there is a chance that childhood splinters of your ego have transformed your practice into a compensatory strategy. It is highly probable if you don’t have a master who can show it and with whom you maintain continuous contact. It is also highly probable that you will hate and leave him when he starts pointing out those splinters to you.
Hint: What are the symptoms of such splinters? Bodily impulses or tension you have experienced since early childhood. The feeling of being helpless or short on something important. Minor dissatisfaction with what you have – everything seems to be fine but could have been a bit better. It could be in your life or meditative practice. Or conversely, you are always fine – you have a great spiritual life, a great master, great friends and family. Delight and bliss. A movable feast.
A child has limited resources, so she cannot weather the totality of Existence, the limitless spectrum of reality which includes both the great pain and darkness and the initially unfamiliar light. She starts building up defenses to reduce this experience to a level that’s manageable and socially accepted. Awakening of these elements means pain. And she will avoid this pain at any cost.
People reduce their exposure to suffering or joy, and the choice of what to shield oneself against should hint at these childhood elements.
What do you do with them? Accept and become them. Assent to everything they represent. This is also you – whimsical, restless, aggressive, egotistic and demanding. Accepting yourself brings great relief and relaxation; they are a prerequisite for awakening.
(This text was written in Russian and for Russian practitioners for whom the whole concept of spiritual bypassing is new. It may seem that in the States or in Europe the situation is different. But I saw many American practitioners, people who told me that they were “sitting for 30 years” and I still could feel and witness those separated parts in them. Three years ago I interviewed John Welwood for a major Russian psychological magazine and asked him about this phenomenon. If the idea of spiritual bypassing has been around for almost 40 years in American spiritual circles why are so many people still bypassing? He said that finding a good psychotherapist is as difficult as finding an enlightened teacher – both are rare and unique gifts).
2. You wait to be awakened
In my meditation retreats I always ask the participants why they wake in the morning. «The alarm clock rings,» is the ubiquitous first answer. What if it’s the weekend and it doesn’t ring? Then it’s always someone or something like a child, a pet, neighbors or noise in the street, that wakes them up. But I insist: «what if nothing wakes you, why do you wake up?» «Because I am recharged,» they say somewhat diffidently. Apparently, few of my students often get good night’s sleep.
This is symbolic. For so many people, changes in their morning states are always externally triggered. When they start meditation, through habit and inattentiveness they apply the same thinking and expect something or someone to help them awaken. It could be a master, a guru, a satsang, miraculous methods, properly chosen places of power, psychoactive drugs, a turn of events, a full moon in May or the right arrangements of stars.
They do listen to their teachers who keep telling them that Buddha’s nature is already within us and we need to direct all our attention inward in order to find it; but habit is second nature. As we leave retreat centers, satsangs or workshops, we pause to check whether there has been any change. Has this teacher succeeded in influencing me? Made me laugh? Stirred me up? Made me open an eye? Then he must be a good one; otherwise, we proceed to check out other teachers.
Instead of returning ourselves as attention to ourselves and ceasing to distinguish between «self» and «others», «The Observer» and «The Observable», out of habit we focus it on the outside world and look for the “alarm clock”.
What do you usually do when you hear the alarm clock? Are you glad? Or is there a part of you that would prefer to sleep on? I don’t know about you, but I often set it five or ten minutes later and resume my sleep. And then I repeat it. A couple of times. Is that similar to how you engage in your practice? Or your relations with the teacher?
If you have been practicing for 10-15 years and have not awakened yet, you may be waiting for the new unique super-duper alarm clock. Or hoping that your old one will do something miraculous and wake you up. Which means your attention is still centered OUTSIDE!
That does not work. That is why Buddha paradoxically said he had never taught, isn’t teaching now and will never teach Dharma. It is impossible. While we are asleep, we cannot be taught. If we have awakened, there is no use teaching us.
Just like we wake up naturally when we have rested well, we awaken naturally when we have recharged and ceased to lose ourselves as attention outside.
If this is your case, do not expect anything. No one will ever wake you up. Only you can return your awareness inside, totally inside, start a journey towards the source. Towards your primordial nature. Develop an insuperable intention to always bring your attention inside, to yourself.
This should not mean we don’t need masters. In the presence of a real master, we can be «infected» with the awakened state. But only if we are ready to be infected.
Hint: Every time you think something good or bad is happening outside, remind yourself these are just constructs of your perception. It is ultimately the reality created by your mind. There is no outside, only your choice to perceive the reality in a particular manner. (I don’t mean solipsism. As Tibetans say there is a relative truth and an absolute truth).
Resistance often wells up in moments like this. For example, I don’t want to accept such a reality as mine where an outsider is hurting me. Once in a hall where many windows were open, I felt very chilly. I know how to activate my inner warmth. But the moment I started doing it, I instantly noticed slight resistance: I don’t want it, they should take care of me and close the windows. This brings us back to item 1 – little children are very demanding because only “others” can take care of them.
Omnipotent «others» are ever-present in Russia – they don’t let the country develop and prosper, they adopt stupid laws, they switch off hot water in summer and forget to trim the lawn, they wheeze during meditation or shudder too much, etc. ad infinitum. This is a deeply held conviction of many practitioners.
When you notice and feel the resistance to focusing your attention inwards, you can spot the resisting part of yourself – and embrace it. I know astonishing cases where people did that and avoided deadlocks and impasses.
3. You are not prepared to surrender
I often visit California where spiritual sessions are legion and such awakened masters as Adyashanti and Ram Tsu teach. I deal a lot with diverse experts in human development and I can’t help noticing many of them are not awakened. American practitioners often, though not always, are psychologically more mature than Russians. There is less pain, personality breakdown, desperation or stress in them. But as the master says, it’s just a more comfortable sort of sleep. Some have nightmares, others dream of a vacation in Bali. But these are all dreams.
As I watched the Americans, I noticed another barrier to our awakening – we aren’t prepared to surrender. Once you have developed a strong ego, you must be prepared to relinquish it, to see that it has no nature of its own. It is unimportant and insignificant. It is akin to mandala construction and destruction or writing hieroglyphs in water on asphalt.
But we always retain a little bit for ourselves. As I see it now, ego is not so much an entity, but rather a continuous process of discovering and emphasizing our own singularity and importance. As long as it’s active and we identify with it, we automatically keep spawning and sustaining our singularity and importance under any circumstances. It’s not the matter of donning a white or orange robe, shaving one’s head and covering one’s face with a fan – without enough awareness our ego will transform this attempt of erasing the «me» into a subtle process of sustaining a unique “me-less” I.
«Look at me, I’m special! I came from a different city or country and I require a different approach! I can see auras! I am advanced! I suffered so much! I am an experienced practitioner, unlike all these greenhorns! I am serious and thoughtful, I don’t ask stupid questions! I am so nice – I understood everything and this is the best workshop in my life! Prove it! Convince me! Surprise me!,” are the constant cries of the egos of people who visit the seminars or meditation sessions I lead.
Just like them, my ego would cry out to the master, «See, I am so special, I don’t demand your attention, I don’t bother you like those clingy students. See, I am working so hard. See, I am very smart! While they are still thinking about what you said, I’ve already processed it, but I am sitting quietly, I don’t stick my neck out!»
The only mechanism developed by various wisdom traditions to deal with such situations is that of total submission to master – not as a human being or a different ego, but the totality of Being as manifested in a human body.
There were periods when the master nearly drove me nuts. “Throw out all your books, you spend all your time in your head. All your questions come from the brain,” he would tell me in the morning. “Why are you silent? You have nothing to ask. Is that because you have not worked?” he would ask in the evening. “It’s no use answering your questions, stop bothering me,” he would tell me indignantly the next day when I plucked up the courage to open my mouth. He drove me to tears and I tore around the ashram like a scalded mouse dreaming that somebody would chop off my head. And then I found myself deep inside my heart as if my head had indeed been chopped off.
Or he would tell me, “You are a bitch. Just like any other woman, all you want is to get your claws into a man and reproduce. This is zoology.” And I would stop dumbstruck, because that was patently not a description of me, with my diploma cum laude in Physics from Moscow State University and a mindful attitude to relationships. But three days later I would see the bitch that had always been in me and that I had completely repressed.
Three months later my teacher would say, “Why haven’t you got yourself a husband yet? You’re 33, how long do you intend to keep meditating? Do something! Print business cards. Go to a cafe. Invite a nice guy to drink coffee with you.” That would also strike me dumb, but several days later I would notice an inconspicuous change inside me and would feel freer as if an unnecessary part had been taken out of me. And no, I didn’t print business cards.
He’s doing the same with other students, because this is the only way to pull out the splinters of ego.
Most people who start meditation are not prepared for that. So many of my students return from the master saying, “I’d rather not study with him for the time being, after all the things he said.”
In all fairness, there are lots of self-proclaimed and ignorant teachers, and one should not deal with them, let alone surrender. Whether the teacher tries to retain you is a potential selection criterion. A true master will do everything to help you become yourself, not his follower. But it takes time to test this.
Hint: Make use of any teacher you have – not as a person, but rather as a manifestation of Existence. Before my husband started teaching or even studying with the master, he learned from me. For several months he would tell me after every session, “Geesh, you are driving me nuts! You talk nonsense in a squeaky voice and your jokes are flat. I really feel like strangling you when I am sitting there. I can barely stand this for two hours.”
He had enough sense and awareness to use this situation as a mirror. He admitted that such an unbearable and nasty teacher like me could be his ideal choice, as I showed the reflections of his own mind. So he started observing those reflections and turned his attention to the one perceiving them. He went deeper to discover his own mind creating the reality in which he lives. And when he met a master, he had his first awakening experience.
4. There are perks to unwakefulness
This is strongly related to Item 3. Often we are not ready to surrender because we are afraid of losing the status quo.
I recently ran a business program for a large corporation whose owner and CEO often goes to retreat centers because his time there stimulates epiphanies and he makes visionary decisions. “But when I come back, it all peters out, you know. How do I make it stick?” he asked me. “That would require a different practice, not a secular mindfulness” I said. “But a potential side effect is that you will gradually cease to identify with the company owner. You may lose interest in money and business. It won’t happen quickly or abruptly, but it’s possible.” “Then I am not ready yet,” was his answer.
You have been meditating for many years. Your are certainly more mindful now. This may have made you healthier, more successful and happier. Teaching meditation may have even become your work. And this could also be another hook.
When my master asked me to start teaching his method he told me, “Remember not to be a good teacher. You should not try hard. You should not care what kind of impression you make or how smart you seem; how many people attend the session; whether they ever return. You must be empty. Nothing. Do not enter into relations with anybody. If an impulse to say something is born in this emptiness and stillness then speak. Otherwise stay silent. Awakening is infectious, you should not worry how it will happen. Such an attitude won’t necessarily make you popular. But this is the only way of really helping others. The only way of teaching by conveying your state and developing yourself without getting bogged down in teaching.”
Such an attitude is indeed debatable. “It’s like you don’t exist, I cannot establish a contact with you,” told me one of my students recently. “I would like to have more warmth and attention.” You must have guessed, that brought us back to Item 1; so we had to patch up relations with Mum and Dad who failed to give him enough warmth and attention.
And yes, I often catch myself bogging down in questions and my desire to answer them. An idea can catch my attention, and I start writing. It’s happening less often now, but I see how practically every thought brings us back to Ego.
Hint: The simplest piece of advice I keep giving myself is to shut up and be mindful so that not a single thought or emotion pulls me back to the self. If that happens, return attention to the natural state without self-identification. Thoughts and emotions will arise and disappear – but do not follow them with your attention. Write only if the text comes on its own from total silence when you are empty.
5. Your heart is closed
“Sounds absurd,” you might say. “First you advise me to develop an insuperable intention and then to surrender completely.” This paradox can only be resolved in our spiritual heart (which should not be confused with the physical one). Self dissolves in the heart to give rise to an insuperable non-egoic drive to learn oneself as a primordial wakefulness. This is the attraction of spirit to itself. It starts acting on its own; and this is the drive Mukti referred to in her interview.
Many spiritual traditions talk about the importance of descending from the head into the spiritual heart. Hesychasts call it “deep heart” and devote months and years to the practice of rooting and staying in it.
Buddhist masters often quote Shantideva in Bodhicaryavatara saying that just as the bird needs two wings to fly over the ocean of samsara, humans need wisdom and method to realize their awakened nature. Their method is bodhicitta, while wisdom is the knowledge of our empty enlightened nature. Absolute bodhicitta is born right in the spiritual heart.
The heart is a bridge between human and spirit. It is in the heart that the human meets the Being and the awakened Human Being is born.
In fact, it is only in the heart that the real practice of transformation starts as only the heart can transmute the five poisons into the five wisdoms, only in the heart can we accept the whole totality of Existence. Only by descending into the heart do we get the first opportunity to see our mind from the outside as a mechanism for spawning individual empty thoughts and feelings that is devoid of its own existence.
One cannot take root in awakened state bypassing the heart. The previous four items are nullified by a mere smidgen of experience of staying in the heart. It is from the heart that we can see and embrace all our dormant, non-living parts, bring our attention back inside, surrender to the mercy of Existence and be prepared for all our bonuses and achievements to become meaningless.
In meditation approach of my teacher we use special techniques for such descending and rooting and the master pays a lot of attention to it.
If you have been practicing for many years, but none of your practices aims at opening the spiritual heart, you can attain wakefulness for a spell of time and then plummet back into the conditional state like a bird that tries to take flight on a single wing.
Hint: I don’t know how to take root in the spiritual heart without resorting at first to certain methods. I have met people, primarily women (since male and female subtle bodies differ) who spontaneously arrive at the heart. Even they needed methods to learn to reside there.
Instead of an afterword:
When I started practicing 20 years ago, awakening seemed like a graduation day – a destination beyond which things are hazy, but you know it’s the end of practice (I was 18, don’t be hard on me). I understand now why awakening is called a ‘rebirth’ – a different sort of practice only starts after it. It is devoid of effort, but it contains methods and guidance on where and how to direct attention at any time of day and night. And it’s crystal clear to me that I am still an infant compared to a master. And there is no saying if I will reach that level in this life. When I watch videos of many modern awakened masters (particularly in Neo Advaita or Americans teaching Vipassana) I see that often the awakened state is present but they have not reached a final realization yet. And they have a huge room for growth – something they often don’t realize or tell their students. Awakening, enlightenment and final realization are different stages. Many people need more than one life to cover them.