The Importance of Stillness and Inquiry: An Interview with Adyashanti

The Importance of Stillness and Inquiry: An Interview with Adyashanti

Adyashanti, author of The Way of Liberation, Falling into Grace, True Meditation, and The End of Your World, is an American-born spiritual teacher devoted to serving the awakening of all beings.

He teaches throughout North America and Europe, offering talks, weekend intensives, silent retreats, and live internet radio broadcasts. Recently, Adya sat down with Jenn Brown (JB), from 1440 and the two talked about cultivating a quality of stillness beyond the meditation cushion:

1440: One of your core practices is stillness. Do you mean sitting still on the meditation cushion, or is it something more?

Adya: It’s something bigger than that. Meditation is a literal embodiment of stillness, but in a broader sense stillness is psychologically being willing to open to the reality that we really don’t know anything. I think all good spirituality starts in a state of I don’t know—a state of uncertainty. When we start to look into our true nature and ask ourselves who we really are, we find we’re really not sure. And if we can not know—and not struggle to know—we have a chance to find stillness.

Like right now, I don’t know how this interview is going to go. If I don’t try to know or wonder, then not knowing is a quiet space. We usually equate not knowing with anxiety, but that’s because we think we should know. We went through a couple of decades of school where if you didn’t know, you failed, so we didn’t get a good model of this!

1440: It seems like our internal world has a life of its own. How do we find stillness amidst our thoughts and emotions?

AdyaWe can’t force our minds to be still because we’re not consciously producing the thoughts and feelings we have. They just come upon us. They just happen to us.

Once we realize we’re not consciously producing these thoughts and feelings, we realize we don’t need to feel guilty for having them and we don’t need to take responsibility for them being there. We also realize that if we’re not producing them, then we can’t control them.

So, if we aren’t producing our thoughts and feelings, and we can’t control them, the question then becomes, “How do I relate to them?” I think it’s right there, in that relating, where we find stillness. It’s in how we relate to what we might call the human experience.

1440: If we have no control over our thoughts and feelings, does that mean we don’t need to take responsibility for them?

Adya: Sometimes we can hear this and think that because these thoughts and feelings are happening spontaneously, there’s nothing we can do about any of it. But even though these experiences just happen to you, that doesn’t mean you can say, “I have nothing to do with this.” I’m not suggesting this as a kind of cop-out where you don’t have to take any responsibility for the way you behave.

It seems like a small thing, how you relate to the thoughts and feelings going on inside you, but the question is immense because all of life is something we can’t control. We can’t control other people, we can’t control situations, we can’t control how we’ll feel five seconds from now. The question then simply is, “What is my relationship to all of this? What is my relationship to that which I can’t control?” This is the place where we have a participatory part to play. In our subjective experience as human beings, it seems like there are options for how to relate to what’s happening, and therein lies the key to our freedom.

1440: Can you describe the spiritual practice of inquiry?

Adya: In its most basic and important form, inquiry is a kind of wondering. It’s like a toddler who is always asking questions, except they’re always asking why and that’s not a particularly good spiritual question because it’s a great way to get stuck in an endlessly looping drama. But inquiry has that same curiosity that we naturally had as children, where we’re drawn to stretching out into the mysteries of life and asking questions. That’s natural to us as children, but as adults we think we have to have all the answers. People often misunderstand inquiry as a search for all the questions, but that’s not what inquiry is for.

1440: Are we looking to learn something in particular with inquiry?

AdyaInquiry is not there to add to our knowledge, but to subtract from it. It shows us what we don’t know.

In that sense, it’s kind of a humbling act. We ask a question like, “Who am I?” and realize, “Gee, I don’t really know.” Inquiry is meant to put us into that state of not knowing. It’s meant to remove all the ways we fake knowing. We don’t have the problem of knowing too little—we know too much. We know what we should be like, what we should be doing, what we should be thinking and feeling. And, by the way, I know what you should be doing and I know the way the world should be too. This takes us away from intimate connection.

1440: What can we expect to find if we’re not going to find answers?

Adya: Inquiry is a way of putting us back in our integrity, which will show us what we really know for certain. When almost 99% of what we think we know is called into question by the process of inquiry, we get intimate with insecurity and uncertainty. What happens when you try to live from that for a day? You often find you have much more access to knowing what you need to know when you need to know it. But then the knowing is situational—it’s not abstract. It’s not a final, monolithic statement. It’s what you need to know for this moment.

When we’re willing to not know, or to be uncertain, clarity can come out of the space of that internal quiet.

When you ask a deep question that doesn’t have an answer and it backs you into a space of “I don’t know,” the practice is to stop there and feel what that feels like. Don’t run. You’ll find stillness. It’s from that place that there is a possibility of having access to something beyond your conscious mind.

In a certain sense, inquiry is a tool to gain access to the subconscious, to that vast, almost infinite space of the unconscious. If we use words to describe it, no matter what terminology we use, we’re translating an actual experience of being into words. We don’t want to get hung up on the words because that’s like being really hungry and eating the menu. We may be full, but we’re not nourished.

1440: How do we translate these spiritual experiences into the nitty-gritty of daily life?

Adya: There are two ways to address that. Next time you’re in a deeper state of being—say you’re meditating—ask yourself what it would be like if the next thing you did when you got up from the cushion could be done from this ground of being, this deeper place. Practice on the small stuff—like brushing your teeth or making breakfast. You don’t want to wait until your boss is telling you you’re doing a terrible job, because you’re probably not going to have access. So the next time you have a centered experience, have an intention to do the next thing or have the next conversation from that place. You don’t know how to do it, but you have the intention.

The second part is related to the word translate that you used. How do we translate the deepest experience of our being into human, workable terms? When you’re in a meaningful experience like that, look to see what is really important. I call this connecting with soul values. Is truth-telling important? Honesty? Open-heartedness? Emotional availability? Sincerity? These aren’t values imposed from the outside, but they’re what come up from your own deepest experience of being. Now you have something you can translate down into human terms. You have something to work with. You can think of this as humanizing insight.

Insights need to be humanized or they just stay as fantastic “Ah-has!” and we end up living a split life.

1440: Why isn’t this as easy to do as it sounds?

Adya: Humanity doesn’t seem to be a vehicle of perfection, so the first thing to remind yourself is that you won’t do this perfectly. You will screw it up—probably several times! You can judge yourself for that or you can admit from the outset that you’re not going to do it perfectly and that you’re going to give it a try anyway. When we let go of comparing and perfection, which are part of the ego structure, it’s so much easier. Plus when you get off your own back, you tend to get off of everybody else’s back too because you realized they’re apparently human too.

This interview was conducted on behalf of 1440 Multiversity by Jenn Brown — a freelance writer, editor, producer, and educator. Photo by Kylli Kittus on Unsplash