We finish up our discussion with spiritual teacher Adyashanti, focusing on several topics relevant to contemporary seekers. We start off by exploring his thoughts on questions of power & hierarchy in the student-teacher relationship. Adya’s approach is to put power back on the student, encouraging them to be their own inner authority from the beginning.
We also explore a type of writing meditative inquiry practice that Adyashanti has done, and which he teaches others. He explores how this type of inquiry can be used in conjunction with silent meditation practice to eliminate roadblocks on the spiritual path.
This is part 2 of a two-part series. Listen to part 1, Now That’s Zen.
Vince: Another topic, and one that’s just really alive in a lot of practitioners conversations and their minds is this whole question around power and hierarchy when it comes to the student-teacher relationship.
Vince: And I was recently on Zen Sesshin and there was a very clear hierarchy between the teacher and us. And I really saw the potential there for both abuse and for people’s issues around power coming up. And then I also saw the potential that differential created to sort of get over my ego tendencies and step to a place of mystery and not knowing and challenging myself in a positive, healthy way that I normally maybe wouldn’t do on my own.
And so it seemed really clear that there were some potentially positive things from this and then some potentially down sides from this. And it seems clear that we are not going the way of Eastern cultures that had these really clear authoritarian power structures in place. And I was wondering in your own teaching, how the relationship between yourself and your students, of power and hierarchy, how you have dealt with that over time, and where it’s at that now?
Adyashanti: Ok, well it’s evolved over time. And most of the evolution has been just for a practical reason, more that for a strategic reason. By that I mean, when the numbers of students get to a certain place, I simply could no longer have these more of these sort of closer, real personal relationships with my students. So I just didn’t have the time to do. Its one thing when I had 30 people at a retreat, but when I have 350, you can’t see everybody in private. You can’t even see a small portion of them.
But outside of that, my own sense of it is, at least as a teacher, I think that every teacher-student relation you walk into, there is some sort of agreement you are making. You may be making it unconsciously, but you are making it, nonetheless. Like you said, if you go to a traditional setup and a Zen situation, there’s an unspoken agreement that the teacher is the final authority, and the teachers way is the way. You are meant to kind of lower your ego, right, in the presence of that. And that has a lot of potentially positive aspects to it, because it does challenge your ego kind of very quickly right? Your ego realizes that it’s not in control of the situation.
Adyashanti: That’s probably the most useful thing about a more authoritarian traditional kind of teacher-student relationship is that the ego doesn’t really get to play its games. If it’s done right. I think, you know, and everyone can draw their own conclusions about what the potential drawbacks are, but I think we know that any kind of power has, unless one is really conscious, it has a potentially corruptive quality to it. Unless you are really on top of things.
For me, the unspoken agreement that I have with people basically, and I tell this to people all the time, and I say basically you’re the authority. Which is my way of saying you have to take responsibility for yourself right at the beginning. I am not really here to baby sit anybody. I am not here to play the role of a traditional authoritarian figure. Even though it may look that way, because I’m sitting up on a stage for instance, and just the set up has the look of a certain power structure. But internally, I am always trying to put responsibility back onto people, back onto themselves. And I even tell people, “Look, if you are looking for somebody to babysit your ego all the time, then you are with the wrong teacher. I am not here to do that. That is not what I am here to do.” Which is a different kind of agreement, right? It’s a different way of going about it. People that are really going to benefit from the way I teach, are going to be people that are self motivated spiritually, and they are sort of willing to take on responsibility for themselves without this sort of grabbing that from an egoic perspective.
You are quite right that no matter what kind of teacher-student relationship, no matter what the set up is, they all have their pluses and minuses, they all have their strong points, and they all have their weaknesses. There is no way to set it up… everything in life has strong points and weaknesses. I don’t look at teacher-relationships as there’s one right way to do it. There’s many ways to do it. And I just happen to do it, you know, the way I do, which reflects the way I was, I think, when I entered spirituality.
I saw my own spiritual teacher as a coach, you might say. You know, because I came through, a lot of my young life, I was a very, very highly competitive endurance athlete and I wanted to be as good as I could be and so I went and talked to my coach. And he said, here’s how to do it. But I knew my coach couldn’t go out there and train for me. He couldn’t do it. Nor did I ask my coach to be a God figure for me.
Adyashanti: So I’ve always seen, even when I was a student, I saw my teacher, kind of, a bit without thinking about it at the time, but a bit more like a coach. Like just tell me the right way to do this. And then I have to go out and do it. And I think that’s, kind of, how I still do things to this day.
Adyashanti: I don’t want to be someone’s God. I don’t want to be someone’s, sort of, final authority figure. You know, I tell people all the time, “Look, you’ve got to come in the door with your own inner integrity, because I’m not going to really be able to give it to you. You’ve got have that for yourself. You’ll either delude, or not delude yourself, for yourself. It’s your responsibility ultimately.” And to say that, really, up front, is a very different power dynamic.
Vince: Nice, and it sounds like you keep going back to that and reminding people of that. And that’s, kind of, the pointer you have.
Adyashanti: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. That’s the pointer that I have. I try to emphasize to people that they do have the capacity too. I think one of the mistakes people make when they go to spiritual teachers is, they think: because I’m not enlightened, I’ve got to leave my good sense at the door. And I tell people, look, it’s just the opposite. If you want this enlightenment thing, you can’t get to it by riding the coattails on some enlightened person. It doesn’t work that way. You’ve got to verify everything for yourself in your own experience. You don’t actually have the luxury of believing in anything. Believing in what I say, just because I say it. Or believing in anybody, including the Buddha–just believing it because he said itbecause that has no transformative value. You have to go inside and find out for yourself in your own experience. Prove it true or false for yourself. So that, right there, is a very different relationship with spirituality. I think, in one sense, it’s inherently more challenging.
Vince: Yeah. Absolutely. It sounds similar to… I was listening to a teacher of mine talk on the seven factors of awakening, this was Jack Kornfield. And he said, oh, and the eighth factor is common sense. [Laughs] And it sounds similar to what you’re saying. That there’s a sense of not leaving behind just the basic intelligence because it’s the spiritual path that that’s somehow different.
Adyashanti: Yeah. The job of a spiritual teacher in one part is to help people hone in on what’s really true inside of themselves, including, just their ordinary good sense. To help them hone in, like, what is it? Because it can be hard not to delude yourself, right? And that’s part of a teachers task, is to help people distinguish between what’s true inside and what’s not true inside. To help show them the ways people can delude themselves, and the ways you can actually be clear.
When the spiritual teacher doesn’t try to take responsibility for that themselves, or take it away from their students, I think the students actually… they find the capacity within themselves, or they don’t. And they go and find a different type of spiritual teacher. Because, like I said, just because I do it the way I do it, I have nothing in me that thinks it’s inherently the better way, or the way anybody else should do it. It’s just, this is the way I do it. If it works for you, great. If it doesn’t, that’s okay too, you’ll go somewhere else where it does work for you.
Vince: So, one really interesting practice, that I saw you suggest to people, or that you did yourself, was practice of this, kind of, writing inquiry. Taking an inquiry question and really using, like, a journal to go into the question, and write only the answers that feel authentically true. To not write anything that’s just bullshit, so to speak.
Vince: And I was wondering if you could share a little bit about that practice and how you came up with it. It sounds like a really relevant practice, for some reason, to me, to a western audience. And I don’t know if that was intentional or not?
Adyashanti: Well, you know, it’s just what I did when I was a student. I mean, I didn’t start out doing it. But I just started… I used to kind of do some journaling and that can be clarifying because, if you write something down, it’s like you get your thoughts on a piece of paper and they stop jumping around all over the place. You stop thinking in circular patterns if you write it down because it’s very obvious when you’re thinking in circular patterns.
So, I found it useful to write down certain thoughts. And then later, I thought, “Okay, now, what if I took whatever the question I had. One time, let’s say, for instance, I had a question, ‘What is surrender really? What is it really? What do I know about this?’” And I thought, “Okay. What if I was going to tell somebody what true surrender was?” And so I started to sit down and write what that was. Because I think we are all better at communicating when we’re trying to communicate to somebody else rather than communicate to ourselves. Does that make sense?
Vince: Yeah, absolutely.
Adyashanti: If you try to explain something to a friend, it’s easier to explain to them, then often it is to explain to yourself. So, I would sort of start writing as if I was writing for somebody else to make something clear for somebody else. And what I would do is I would refuse to write anything that I didn’t know was really true. That’s where it changed from journaling into what I call a meditative inquiry.
Journaling is just kind of getting your thoughts out. This was only putting the thoughts down that I saw to be really absolutely true. And I would find that when I would start to write in this way, that I could literally get halfway through a sentence. In the middle of the sentence, I’d go, “Okay, that’s the last word that I know to be true.” And I would just stop there. And I would refuse to write anything more until I could find out what was true. And sometime I would sit there for 15 minutes before, maybe, two words would come that were really true. I’d write those two words and then I wouldn’t write anything else until it was true. So, it was a very concentrated, challenging way to write because it was, in its way, meditative. It was to write in this way isn’t just to spew out one’s thoughts, it’s really more a product of deep listening inside, than it is deep thinking inside.
I just found it to be extraordinarily useful for me. And I did quite a bit of that for quite a while. And I found that I could get through sort of these spiritual roadblocks that I used to bump into, I could find insights through this process that might take me much, much, much longer than simply meditating, even though I did a lot of meditation at that time as well. I found, though, to combine the two of sort of some way to actively inquire, and a meditation where you just sort of let go and relax, those two really provided a really powerful dynamic, kind of like a yin and a yang thing. And I found, as a teacher, if people are just meditating, there’s often not that catalyst, that spark that will spark awakening or deep insight. They make it into deep meditative states of absorption but spiritual awakening isn’t to get into a deep state of absorption, it’s a state of “ah, ha.” And so I think the inquiry part adds energy. It adds a catalyst. It kind of keeps whatever is unresolved in you very much at the forefront of your consciousness. And so it adds a real dynamic to it. And so I found it really useful for myself. And I, at times, suggest that other people might want to do their own version of the same thing, especially if they’re working with something they’re really stuck on. Some patterns, they just can’t see through, some repetitive thing they know they have to have a deeper insight into but they just can’t seem to find it. I’ll often say, “Well. Sit down and communicate the answer to your question but don’t write anything unless you know it’s totally true.” That’s how I came up with it. And that’s how sometimes I have people utilize it. Because if you do it right, you spend much more time sitting in silence than you do actually writing.
Vince: Yeah, it sounds like it.
Adyashanti: You know, because how much can anybody write that they know is absolutely true? It might take you a couple hours to get a half a sentence outYou know? . [Laughs] But if we’re talking about what’s really true, and we’re talking about spirituality, then those are the things we want to really find out about ourselves. What do we know that’s really true, as opposed to all the nonsense that we imagine we know is true? And that’s what I found the process of this sort of, type of inquiry through writing really did.
It’s not so much–the valuable part was not only what I found, but was really also that it showed me what I didn’t know, which is really valuable. It’s extraordinarily important. It’s kind of like a spring-cleaning, you know? You just dust out your consciousness–you go, “Wow, 99% of the things that I think I know, when I really examine them honestly…” You’re all of a sudden not so sure if it’s really true or not. And it’s really valuable to empty out the mind in that way, and to empty out the old belief system.
Vince: Yeah, it sounds sort of similar to that whole Zen idea of Great Doubt, of building up the sense of not knowing.
Adyashanti: Exactly. Exactly. Or like the Korean Zen teacher used to say, “don’t-know mind.” But you can be sitting there trying to be in don’t-know mind, but you might not even know what don’t-know mind means. You know what I mean? Just because someone says it doesn’t know what it means. But when you really start to look, you really say, “Gosh, I actually don’t know anything.” Now that’s don’t-know mind. Does that make sense?
Vince: Yeah–no, no, it doesn’t. [Laughs]
Adyashanti: Where this really started for me was a very, very sort of eye-opening and in some ways sobering, chilling moment, after a Sesshin that I sat, on the retreat. I was sitting there, and at the end of it, people were having breakfast after it was over, and talking, and I heard a group of old-time students who’d been at this, like, 20, 30—a couple of them—40 years. They were talking, and they were all talking about how when they were young, they remembered getting involved in Buddhism, and they wanted enlightenment and to awaken, and now that they’d been doing it for 30 or 40 years they’d kind of just let go of that. They hadn’t really found out what that was, but they’d found—they kind of found peace with not finding out what this enlightenment thing was about. So they had a peace about that. And they actually did have a peace about that. You know, like, well maybe it’s not going to happen but it’s okay. And I could see, for them, it was okay. And that it was okay. But for me, at 23 years old, and I suddenly look over and I go, “That could be me in 40 years.” I could be sitting there saying, “Well, the enlightenment thing didn’t really work out, but, you know, I’m really at peace with that.” And something about me, at 23 years old–I literally had to bite my bottom lip. I literally dug my teeth into my bottom lip, otherwise I just would have screamed out this huge, “No!” Like, it cannot end that way, that’s what I thought. That can’t happen. That’s not acceptable. It was fine for them, so it wasn’t a judgment for them. But for me, it scared the hell out of me. And that’s the day when I thought, “Okay, that’s it.” I realized I was on my own. Because I realized you can’t just follow the tradition, because it might not work out. Just doing what you’re told because someone says that’s the way to do it, and that’s the way they’ve always done it–I thought, “Okay, I don’t have that luxury. I’ve got to prove everything true or false for myself, and it’s up to me.”
And I didn’t leave my teachers, and I didn’t leave my tradition, and I didn’t stop meditating–I didn’t stop doing any of that, but the internal relationship shifted. And what I was really confronted with, is I thought, “Not only do I not know what enlightenment is, I don’t even know if there’s such a thing. Maybe we’re all just deluding ourselves. Maybe this is just a pipe dream.” But you see, up till that point, I couldn’t even ask myself that question. I couldn’t even admit that maybe it was just a pipe dream. It was too frightening. But as soon as I could admit that, it sort of frightened me into a clarity. I thought, “Well I have to find out then, don’t I?” And I don’t know if you can sense it, but there was a real aloneness in it. There was a very stark energy to it. That, ok I’ve got to do this, I’ve got to find this out for myself.
And I look back many, many years later, and I look at that moment as probably one of the most significant moments in my whole spiritual seeking days. Because it was the day that I stopped accepting anything simply because somebody said it, including the Buddha. And I looked back and I go that was the most important thing I ever did. I didn’t throw out what anybody said. But I realized that until I proved it to be true in myself, I don’t actually know if it’s true or not. Now when you do that, you feel very, very alone. You feel like there is very little to grab hold of. Because there’s almost nothing that you actually know, for certain. And so it kind of scares you into a clarity, you might say. [Laughs]
Vince: Nice. It sounds like that really connects both to the writing inquiry and the energy behind that. And also, when we were talking about the student-teacher relationship, that’s what you keep pointing people back in themselves, is to find out for themselves.
Vince: It sounds like it’s been a major theme in your own experience and in the way that you work with people.
Adyashanti: Sure, I think for all of us, however we teach, it kind of reflects ourselves, and what we did. And that’s the way I teach too. And sometimes that works for people. I have told other people the same story when I have taught several times. And some people are kind of inspired by it and other people get so darned spooked, that they just get despondent. Like oh god, you’re right, I don’t know anything. How can I do that and they get overwhelmed by it. So it can have, like everything, it’s a double-edged sword, right?
But, in the end, I see this as the hallmark. I mean I always like to point out back and look, this is what the Buddha did. This is what got the Buddha under the Bodhi Tree. He went to all the teachers, he went to all the teachings. He went through the whole circuit of the day. He became an ascetic. He did everything he was supposed to do. And at the end of the day, it didn’t quite work out for him. So there he is in a totally catch-22 situation. He can’t keep doing what he has done. He can’t keep doing what everyone else is doing. It hasn’t worked. But he can’t just walk away from it either because he can never forget about it. He has to find this answer. So he eventually finds himself under this tree all by himself, nobody else. Him and him alone. And he has to come to his own realization for himself. And I think that, there is a sort of a motif in this.
You see it through history, Jesus the way. I always remind people Jesus was an extraordinary person but Jesus was not a Christian. Jesus came from Judaism, but he was someone who found his own insight in it, you see? He stepped out of the mold, and found something extraordinary. Buddha stepped out of the mold and found something extraordinary.
So I am always suggesting to everyone, from the very beginning, from step one, go ahead and step out of the mold. You are going to have to do it sooner or later. You may end up being still your dharma, your karma may still be, to be a very traditional Buddhist, or a traditional Christian or a traditional Jew, and that’s fine if that’s sort of what your dharma is. But I think a lot of people don’t even want to question it.