Before I had my final awakening years ago, I was crazed for enlightenment. You have to be a little crazy to seriously study Zen. My teacher used to say, “Only the crazy ones stay.” One way my craziness worked was that before I went to sit with my teacher’s group for a couple of hours on Sunday mornings, I would get up early, at 5:00 or 5:30 a.m., and do extra sittings. I would sit in a little room meditating and freezing to death.
Sitting there on one of those particular mornings, two things happened, one after another, and they seemed very paradoxical. The first one was a spontaneous seeing that everything was one. For me that manifested as hearing a birdcall, a chirp, in the front yard, and from somewhere inside me the question arose, “What is it that hears the sound?” I had never asked this question before. I suddenly realized I was as much the sound and the bird as the one hearing the bird, that the hearing and sound and bird were all manifestations of one thing. I cannot say what that one thing is, except to say one thing.
I opened my eyes, and I found the same thing was happening in the room—the wall and the one seeing the wall were the same thing. I thought that was very strange, and I realized that the one thinking this was another manifestation of that. I got up and began to move around the house looking for something that wasn’t part of the One. But everything was a reflection of that One thing. Everything was the divine. I wandered into the living room. In the middle of a step, consciousness, or awareness, suddenly left everything, whether it was a physical thing or body thing or world thing.
All in the step of a foot, everything disappeared. What arose was an image of what seemed like an infinite number of past incarnations, as if heads were lined up one behind another as far back as I could see. Awareness realized something like, “My God, I’ve been identified with various forms for umpteen lifetimes.” At that moment, consciousness—spirit—realized it had been so identified with all these forms that it really thought it was a form right up to this lifetime.
All of a sudden, consciousness was unconfined to the form and existed independently. It was no longer defining itself by any form, whether that form was a body, a mind, a lifetime, a single thought, or a memory. I saw this, but I almost couldn’t believe it. It was like someone just stuck a million dollars in my pocket, and I kept pulling it out as if I didn’t believe I had it. But it couldn’t be denied either. Even though I am using the word “I,” there was no “I,” only the One.
These two experiences happened together, one following within a few moments of the other. In the first, I became the Oneness of everything, and in the second, I became the consciousness or spirit that totally woke up out of all identification, even out of Oneness. When the Oneness dropped away, there was still a basic awakeness, but it had two different aspects: I’m everything, and I’m absolutely nothing. This was the awakening, the realization of Self.
The next thing that happened was that I took a step, just an ordinary step. It felt like the way a baby does when it takes his first good step and then smiles and looks around as if to say, “Did you see that?” and you can see his joy. So I took a step, and it was like, “Wow! The first step!” and another step, and then another, and I kept moving in circles because every step was the first step. It was a miracle. In each “first” step, formless consciousness and Oneness just merged together so that the awakeness that had always identified itself as form was now actually inside of the form, unidentified. It wasn’t looking through any thoughts or memories of what had come before, just through the five senses. With no history or memory, every step felt like a first step.
Then the funniest thought came through my mind—funny to me after thirteen years of Zen practice—“Oops. I just woke up out of Zen!” When you wake up, you realize that you wake up out of everything, including all the things that have helped to bring you there.
The next thing I did was write my wife this odd note. It said something like, “Happy birthday. Today is my birthday. I’ve just been born.” I left it for her, and when I drove past our house to go to my meditation group, I saw her standing there waving the note in her hand. I don’t know how, but she knew exactly what it meant.
I didn’t tell my teacher anything about the experience for about three months because it seemed pointless. Why would anyone need to know this? I felt no need to tell anyone or be congratulated. It seemed totally sufficient in and of itself. It was only later that I learned that my experience corresponded to what my teacher had been talking about all along. I realized that this awakening was what all the teachings were about. In a very real way, that experience, which continues and is still the same today, is the foundation of everything I talk about.
When we really start to take a look at who we think we are, we become very grace prone. We start to see that while we may have various thoughts, beliefs, and identities, they do not individually or collectively tell us who we are. A mystery presents itself: we realize that when we really look at ourselves clearly and carefully, it is actually astounding how completely we humans define ourselves by the content of our minds, feelings, and history. Many forms of spirituality try to get rid of thoughts, feelings, and memories—to make the mind blank, as if that were a desirable or spiritual state. But to have the mind blank is not necessarily wise. Instead, it is more helpful to see through thoughts and to recognize that a thought is just a thought, a belief, a memory. Then we can stop binding consciousness or spirit to our thoughts and mental states. With that first step, when I realized that what was looking through my eyes and senses was awakeness or spirit rather than conditioning or memory, I saw that the same spirit was actually looking through all the other pairs of eyes. It didn’t matter if it was looking through other conditioning; it was the exact same thing. It was seeing itself everywhere, not only in the eyes, but also in the trees, the rocks, and the floor.
It is paradoxical that the more this spirit or consciousness starts to taste itself, not as a thought or idea or belief, but as just a simple presence of awakeness, the more this awakeness is reflected everywhere. The more we wake up out of bodies and minds and identities, the more we see that bodies and minds are actually just manifestations of that same spirit, that same presence. The more we realize that who we are is totally outside of time, outside of the world, and outside of everything that happens, the more we realize that this same presence is the world—all that is happening and all that exists. It is like two sides of a coin.
The biggest barrier to awakening is the belief that it is something rare. When this barrier is dropped, or at least you start to tell yourself, “I really don’t know if my belief that awakening is difficult is true or not,” then everything becomes instantly available to you. Since this is all that exists, it can’t be rare and difficult unless we insist it is. The basis of all this is not theoretical, it is experiential. No one taught it to me, and no one can teach it to you. What is so beautiful about awakening is that when you are no longer functioning through your conditioning, then the sense of “me” who was living that life is no longer there. Most people are familiar with the sense of a me living this life. But when this is seen through, the experience is that what really runs and operates this life is love, and this same love is in everybody all the time. When it is working its way through your personal stuff, it gets dissipated, but it is still there. Nobody owns this love. Everybody is essentially the manifestation of this love.
You have experienced moments in your life, whether or not you are aware of them, when you momentarily forgot the “I” with which you have been identified. It can happen spontaneously at a beautiful sight, or it can occur from egoic forgetfulness. People usually discount these moments. After experiencing the “nice moment,” you then reconstitute your familiar sense of identity. But actually these opportunities are like little peepholes through which the truth is experienced.
This article is reprinted from the book Emptiness Dancing.
Copyright © 2004, 2006 Adyashanti.
Adyashanti is an American-born spiritual teacher devoted to serving the awakening of all beings.
“I’ve been involved with some form of Buddhism for about 15 years. For most of that time I have considered myself to be a committed student of mindfulness practice in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hahn. I've read many, many books on spiritual practice and in particular on Buddhism, but I have never come across anything quite like this book. Adyashanti’s words speak to me at a level which I have not otherwise experienced. For me his teachings are pure and direct – like you might hear about in stories about Zen masters of the past. Interestingly, I don't associate his teachings with any religion or spiritual tradition (nor does he), since they speak about Truth/Reality that exists independent of conceptual frameworks (i.e. a particular belief system). This is the most important book I have ever read. Strong words I know. For me it's true. But I also recognize that the value of the book’s contents are a function of my personal experiences and where I am. So I also recognize not everyone may value it as much as me. Nonetheless, I highly recommend it as a source of deep and honest spiritual guidance.”
—John (an Amazon reviewer)
This page was published on September 12, 2016 and last revised on August 28, 2019.