Author Interviews / From the Editors

Rodney Smith on What it Means to Awaken

Book coverAn Interview with Rodney Smith, author of Awakening: A Paradigm Shift of the Heart

Shambhala: In your new book you take on the possibly daunting task of describing what enlightenment is and how it happens. To what extent can it even be described?

Rodney Smith: I think the words used to describe awakening can intimate something that we all feel is true though we may not have had the actual experience. When this book speaks of the paradigm shift toward nonseparation, many of us feel that possibility deeply within our hearts. We may even have had glimpses of that very perception, but few of us live continually within that reality, and that is where the real journey begins. In some ways the spiritual journey directs us toward a deeping faith. In the beginning we apply ourselves based on an indescribable yearning without any assurance what the ultimate message of the heart is or where it is taking us. In the end, the final crossing into the new paradigm occurs from faith—not faith in something, but the total release offered only through faith that allows us to surrender our entire life to something that is completely unknown. This faith capacity is in each of us but becomes obstructed by issues of doubt and confusion that keep us fixed within the consensus perspective. Though the journey is unique to each one of us, there are markers along the way that are common to us all. Knowing those markers can also help focus our intenion and bolster the conviction that the journey is possible.

S: You’ve practiced in the Buddhist tradition for many years, of course, and use some Buddhist language in talking about this. How “Buddhist” is awakening? Do you take the Buddhist teachings to be a more effective way toward waking up than those of other spiritual traditions?

RS: The Buddha provided a beautiful blueprint for awakening, but it is not the only map. I have practiced in several traditions and find that each has a value and a limitation when fully embraced. I think one of the limitations of staying to tighly bound to the Buddha’s words is that many of us have become overly dependent upon those words for detailing our particular journey. His words were often directed to a specific person during a unique time in that person’s spiritual quest and are not meant to be referenced by each of us regardless of our maturity or understanding. An example of this is his emphasis on jhana practice (absorption states), which makes sense when we realize that many of the people around the Buddha started as an ascetic practitioners, and the Buddha, I believe, was trying to build upon his students’ previous efforts to realign their intention. Many of us hear these passages as directives for us to practice the jhanas, but I think the Buddha was just being a skillful teacher by taking these practitioners exactly where they were and then inviting them forward into a new perception of life. I believe we make the Buddha so superhuman, even though we call him human, that many of us think it is almost heretical to question his advice. J. Krishnamurti called this path “a pathless path,” and I believe that unless we question everything that comes to us, including everyone’s directives, we obscure the wonder that is the journey into a predictable and guaranteed path. The journey directs us into our hearts where every step draws us into an unknowable mystery. One of the chants we repeated during my monk years used the Pali word ehipassiko, which means “come and see for yourself.” I think we need to take that phrase completely to heart.

S: How does one know when the paradigm shift has taken place? Is it possible to be mistaken about having had the experience of awakening?

RS: Awakening is a tear in the fabric of our consensus paradigm that can be dramatic and disorienting, but there are also students who over time slowly melt into the new paradigm without any drama or confusion whatsoever. If it is jarring and upsetting, it can be helpful to meet with a teacher who knows the landscape. A skillful teacher might inquire about the nature of the awakening moment itself and ask the student to describe what occurred. The teacher may then ask how this awakening has changed the person’s understanding of both herself and life. There are certain signs and language that a truly awakened student has, one of which is her self-referencing. How does she understand herself in relation to the unconditioned? What is her understanding of self-will and effort? What is left to do on her spiritual journey, and how will she accomplish that? Is she stuck anywhere in the breathtaking wonder that she has realized? All of these questions can be helpful in knowing the extent and authenticity of the awakening, but equally important is a sensing of something more in her than there was before, some dimension of herself that has been released. These sudden eruptions into wakefulness are often time-limited and usually close back down into conventional reality, but they do offer a knowledge and a certainty of the spiritual landscape that is indisputable. These openings can hone our intention, but the real point is to fully and continually embody this awakening, and that is a forever journey into the heart.

S: Is meditation the path to awakening?

RS: That depends upon what is meant by meditation. A meditation technique that establishes mental harmony and then uses a steady attention to look and see what is occurring internally can be very helpful. It depersonalizes our mental world and exposes us to to the inherent emptiness of all phenomena. But meditation is rarely a complete path in itself. Perhaps most important is the intention behind the meditation: What is it that the student really wants? Because that is where his energy will go, whether he is aware of it or not. Is there a deep yearning to know what is true, or are other motivations driving the student’s intention? At another point in our spiritual understanding we will realize that no method or technique can move us forward, but that understanding usually comes after a lot of meditation.

What is essential on the spiritual journey is the discovery of our intrinsic stillness, and that usually occurs when we have repeatedly exposed ourselves to quietude. The journey really begins with that discovery. Proper meditation can move us in that direction, but meditation can also become an end in itself that adds a level of ego involvement and noise. Again, it is the intention and sincerity of the student that will determine the direction of the meditation.

S: How can we access the discernment necessary to tell the difference between practices that lead to awakening and those that lead another direction?

RS: This is the main theme of my book. The Buddha stated that he taught “only one thing: suffering and its cessation.” It is interesting to ponder why he said this, because it seems like he taught many things, including Dependent Origination, the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, the Three Characteristics, the Five Spiritual Faculties, and on and on. But why when asked did he frame his teaching so explicitly, narrowing it to this single phrase?

One possible explanation is that everything else he taught were side issues that fed into his central teaching of suffering and its cessation. Perhaps all his other teachings are either different ways of describing the end point or skillful ways to guide us gently back to this main theme. But I believe there is another overarching reason that he pared his teaching down to a single phrase. This simple one-sentence explanation eliminates confusion by providing total clarity of view, intent, direction and purpose for the entire journey. The direction of suffering and its end, channels our energy, clarifies our intent, monitors our progress, guides our techniques, and aligns us with our sincerity. When we question what we are doing and why, we have to concede the point of our true motivation: “Does this method I am employing, this effort I am exerting, this goal I am setting add to or alleviate suffering? Does denial of this fact, avoidance of this difficulty, or procrastination of my responsibility create or lessen struggle for others and myself?”

All authentic spiritual paths must have a relative starting point and an absolute ending point, or the new paradigm will be missed. The end of suffering is not a pleasant day without our normal bodily aches and pains, it is the complete uprooting of the sense-of-self any residue of which creates a subtle tension called suffering. But the continuum of suffering to its end is not the only continuum that works. The Christian continuum from earth to heaven also works, if earth is understood as our conventional individuate self-centered life and heaven as the unconditional extinguishment of all forms of polarities, including the polarity of self and God.

In the end we will receive what we are after, and the path we choose is often an indication of the goal we have in mind. Mistakes are not wrong directions as much as they are opportunities to see the limitations of what we thought we wanted, and they thereby clarify our path. What do we truly want? is the question on which our spiritual path will unfold, and the more sincere we are the more direct the discovery.

Book cover

S: What do you see as the main pitfalls for those who seek enlightenment, and, conversely, what activities and life choices are the most conducive to it?

RS: The main problem with many forms of spiritual growth is that we keep using the very perceptions that foster our delusion as the means to awaken, thereby tightening the grip of the conventional paradigm, even as we attempt to transcend it. We take the conventional paradigm of separation as a fact and apply its rules as the strategy for our release. An example of this is the way many of us percieve the spiritual problem as a personal deficiency. We then go out and gather the missing pieces of minfulness, calm, equinimity, samadhi, etc., to complete ourselves for transcendence. What transcendence means is that we “transcend” that perception and way of thinking. It is the “us” that is to be questioned, not what we believe is missing, but we are so used to thinking of ourselves in insufficient terms, we fold this perception into our spiritual quest. Other asumptions that we base our journey upon and are at the root of the problem are the nature of the self that is seeking, time, distance to be covered, and even a problem to be resolved. All this reminds me of the Chinese Finger Trap. The only strategy we have learned in such a predicament is to pull our fingers apart, but that unfortunately tightens the grip the trap has on us.

As the path unfolds we usually become more simple and easy, and complexity naturally pares away. Sometimes our lifestyle will organically change as a result, sometimes not, but almost always we will seek more alone or quiet time, and stillness becomes our refuge. We develop a natural relationship with inward quiet and find it abundantly available as our thoughts become less believable. We begin to base our life on questioning everything, even the most fundamental assumptions. “Is this true? What is this?” becomes the standard way we live.

S: One hears of spiritual teachers who are enlightened, but who then go on to create a lot of suffering around themselves. How does awakening relate to morality?

RS: We awaken out of ourselves and our self-centered position, but awakening is often incomplete. The awakened state offers such power of position and mind that if it is incomplete any residual ego will be forced to the surface. Then, all hell may break loose. If the ego refuses to acknowledge the tension that remains, it can rationalize everything it does as “crazy wisdom,” a very dangerous term. If, however, ethical behavior has been a central theme throughout our spiritual journey, we will continue to reference our conduct during the uprooting of the sense-of-self. The egoic state is a conditioned state, which means it draws from its storehouse of responses. When not harming ourselves and others becomes the conditioned way we live, then this theme will also be played out as our conditioning is being surmounted. As our conditioning decreases and wakefulness increases our innate response not to harm begins to take over. When our spiritual journey is tied tightly to nonharm, we are less likely to harm in the beginning, middle, and the end.

Another component of this is the understanding that awakening is the journey to complete sanity. We know sanity when we see it, and we should encourage that intuitive response forward rather than succumbing to the power and influence of any teacher. If it feels off, it probably is. We are such a doubting culture that we think. “Who am I to doubt someone as wise as my teacher.” Dropping the doubt, who are we not to?

It should be noted that awakening does not carry the skill of personal interactions along with it. Just the contrary, if we were untrained in personal relationships in the beginning we will be untrained when we awaken. We ascribe so much to awakening that we believe everything that is uttered, every interaction undertaken, all arise from some pristine state of being, when it is more likely occurring because we have not learned the competencies of how to live.

S: What is the starting point on the path to awakening?

RS: The starting point on the path is asking ourselves what we really want out of life, and then, whatever that response is, doing it full-heartedly. Even if our answer is a worldly pursuit, full-heartedness will show us its value and limitation. After repeatedly seeing the limitation of our wanting, our energy begins to consolidate around a deeper objective and yearning. Once that deeper objective is set in motion, the next question that arises is: “What is going on in me right now?” From that question, everything unfolds.

S: What are the consequences of awakening?

RS: What life has always wanted from us is our unique unconditioned presentation within form. Outside of that, there are no consequences to awakening, and it has no purpose or intent. From a conventional perspective it is a meaningless life, and that is what scares us away. We are used to being responsible and purposeful. All our states of mind arise from conditioning and that substantiates our reason for being. What would our lives look like if we were no longer conditioned to any state of mind? What would move or motivate us? Isn’t the definition of spontaneity “life erupting forth free from any conditioned influence”? Maybe then, an awakened heart would look spontaneous.

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