SUFFERING IS ENTIRELY OPTIONAL

by Adyashanti

What I am talking about here isn’t the kind of self-examination that we’re used to. People in the spiritual world are often busy meditating, chanting the name of God, and doing various spiritual practices and prayers as a means of trying to bring happiness to themselves or to garner God’s grace. Spiritual people often listen to the teachings of the great awakened ones and try to apply them, but they often miss the key element, and that is: We’re addicted to being ourselves. We’re addicted to our own self-centeredness. We’re addicted to our suffering. We’re addicted to our beliefs and our worldview. We really think that the universe would collapse if we relinquished our part in it. In this way, we actually want to continue suffering.

Most addicts come up with a whole variety of reasons why they’re addicted, and some of those reasons may be very valid and have some truth to them. But ultimately, at the end of the day, when we’re addicted to something, anything, it’s because we choose to be. We might blame it on something else, on somebody else, on certain circumstances in our lives—and of course painful moments in our lives might have something to do with our suffering and with the things to which we’re addicted. But when it comes to here and now in this moment, the truth is we’re not in the past anymore. The truth is that whatever happened, happened. It’s past tense, and there’s something in us that tends to want to hold onto it, to grasp onto it, mostly because we’re terrified to let go of the very things that make us suffer, because if we let go of the past, we wouldn’t know who we are anymore. We wouldn’t be able to clothe ourselves in the past. We wouldn’t be able to feel sorry for ourselves. We would stand in this moment, and this moment only, and we would face ourselves without judgment, shame, or guilt.

I got involved in spirituality at a young age. I was about twenty years old when, for some reason, I just had to know what was true, what was real. I can’t tell you all of the reasons that I had to know. I don’t even understand them. I literally woke up one morning, and I simply had to know what was ultimately real and true. I knew my life had completely changed, and the orientation that I’d thought my life was based upon was no longer relevant. Something completely new had woken up in my life, and I knew it was going to be about something entirely different than what I had planned on. It was then that I started upon what’s called “the spiritual search” and like most other spiritual seekers, I eventually found myself a teacher, and I started meditating.

My teacher was a Zen Buddhist, and in the Zen Buddhist tradition what you do more than anything else is sit around on cushions, stare at the walls, and meditate for hours a day, and so that’s what I did. I sat on that cushion, and I tried to meditate, and tried to meditate, and tried to meditate, and tried to meditate. No matter how hard I tried, I was never really, consistently good at it. I never really figured out how to stop my mind. What I often did on the cushion was suffer, not necessarily because of the past, but because I seemed to be completely powerless to break through the view of life that I held onto so tightly.

Somehow, intuitively, I sensed that I wasn’t viewing life the way it really was. I had an intuition that there was something else, that there was a different vision, that there was a greater reality than I was currently seeing. I tried everything I knew to break through into that: I meditated and meditated and I wrote in my notebook. I read books. I talked with a multitude of people. And I thought about it in my head, and then I meditated some more, and on and on and on and on it went.

Having grown up an athlete, I knew how to push and strive and struggle for success. The notion of working hard for long periods of time was very familiar to me, so even when it continued to hurt, I could still sit and meditate more. I kept pushing and pushing, as many people do, and after about four years I hit a wall. I realized that I simply couldn’t do what I was trying to do. I realized that I didn’t really know anything. It took me four years to get to the place where I could say to myself, “I have no idea what I’m doing. I have no idea what’s real and what’s not real. I have theories; I’ve written stacks of notebooks on what I think is and isn’t real, what I think God is and isn’t, but really, at the end of the day, after four years of intense spiritual struggle, I don’t know any more than I did at the beginning.”

That was a crushing defeat. I didn’t know what to do, because I finally knew that I really didn’t know the first thing about breaking through into a larger view. I didn’t know the first thing about how to stop struggling. I didn’t know how to not suffer. I hit a brick wall.

The day I hit the brick wall, I was in my little backyard hut that I had built for my meditation practice, and I sat down on my cushion like I did every other morning. I lit my incense, and I sat down and faced the wall. And just as I began to try to meditate, to try to calm my mind, all of a sudden—from my guts, not from my head, but from deep, deep down within me—something yelled out inside me: “I can’t do this anymore! I can’t do it! I don’t know how to break through! I don’t know how to stop struggling. I don’t know how to stop striving. I can’t do this!” That was the moment. That was the moment when everything began to change. I didn’t know it at the time, but everything I’d ever done in my life up until that moment had prepared me to realize that I was powerless, because I was trapped in a certain view of things. Everything I did to try not to suffer, not to struggle, was actually coming from my own viewpoint. And there was nothing I could do. Finally, I faced the last thing that I ever wanted to face—I think the last thing anybody ever wants to face—and that is absolute, utter, bone-crushing defeat. This is something quite different than feeling despair or despondence. When we feel despair and despondence, we haven’t been completely defeated yet, which means we haven’t entirely stopped. Something in us is still struggling against what is.

But in that moment where I realized there was literally nothing I could do, everything changed. All of a sudden, my view of everything shifted. Almost like flipping over a card or a coin, everything that I ever thought or felt, everything that I could remember, everything in that moment literally disappeared. I was finally alone. And in this aloneness, I had no idea what I was, or where I was, or what was happening. All I knew was that I had hit the end of some imaginary road. I’d come to some brick wall and found myself suddenly on the other side of it, where the brick wall actually disappeared. And then this great revelation occurred where I realized that I was both nothing and everything, simultaneously.

As soon as that realization came, I started to laugh. I thought, “My God! I’ve been searching for this for years, meditating for thousands of hours, writing dozens of notebooks—all this searching and all this struggle.” It may sound like a short period of time—four years is a relatively short period of time—but when you’re in your twenties, four years seems like forever. So in that moment I laughed, because I realized that what I was searching for was always right here, that the enlightenment for which I was seeking was literally the space that I existed in. All along I hadn’t ever been far from the end of suffering. It had been an open door from the very beginning, from the first breath that I ever took.

My suffering, as with all suffering, was entirely optional, but I had never known that. What it took to get me to that point was to realize that I couldn’t do it, that I couldn’t figure it out. That’s what it means to stop, or more accurately, that’s what it means to be stopped, to be completely and utterly stopped. It was a spiritual form of bottoming out, just like what a drug addict might experience. Suddenly I realized that what I was addicted to was me—me, the one who was struggling; me, the one who was striving for enlightenment; me, the one who was confused. I was a junkie for me. Even as I was trying to get beyond myself, to break through to a different view, I couldn’t because I was actually addicted to me. And there wasn’t a secret about how to get un-addicted. I had to get to the point where I bottomed out, where I stopped, where I realized that I didn’t know anything.

I had heard these teachings before, of course. I had heard the teaching of “Don’t know. Let go of what you think you know.” But I had taken these teachings and conveniently enfolded them into my worldview. I’d thought I understood what the great spiritual teachers were talking about. But at that moment, what I really saw was that I had never understood anything. I had never understood a single thing, and that was quite shocking.

[a review of the book is now at the site: http://www.hopedance.org/media-reviews/books/1905-adyashanti]

Excerpted from Falling Into Grace: Insights on the End of Suffering by Adyashanti (Sounds True,  ISBN: 978-1-60407-087-3) © 2011 Adyashanti. The book is available through Adyashanti but wont be available from Sounds True until April, 2011)