“Difficulty opens us to moments of grace during which we are reminded of the great vitality beneath the surface of things – beneath the way things seem to be. When we even talk about grace or about any moment of breakthrough into a greater sense of the reality of which we are a part and which we are, we think of it as something extraordinarily pleasant or at least more pleasant than the environment we are in. We believe that if we could only separate from our difficulties, if we could not be so challenged by what occurs day to day, we would have a better opportunity for moments of grace to occur; we would be more able to open to a bigger sense of reality and of who we are. It is interesting that we hold these ideas of what is conducive to grace, to spiritual breakthrough, because they actually contradict the moments when grace shows up.
Sometimes we do have moments of grace and deeper understanding when we are in a serene, comfortable, safe environment. Grace can arise as we are walking through the forest on a quiet day when nothing is disturbing us, and we are taken by the great silence and held by that sense of nature that allows us to relax into the greater reality of what we are. However, after more than two decades of teaching, I have found that grace comes more often through great challenges: when we are coming up against some edge in our lives, when we do not know how to handle a situation, or when our normal ways of coping are not useful and we find ourselves on unfamiliar ground. The challenge could be the loss of a loved one or the loss of a job; it could be a serious illness or any manner of things that leave us no choice but to draw upon a capacity within us that we might not know how to access otherwise.
We see this in stories from all the great religious traditions. The Buddha is a good example. He wanted to find out if there was any answer to the existential human dilemma of the unavoidable facts of birth, life, death, and suffering. He was motivated by seeing something we all recognize at some point or another: life holds a great deal of suffering. In his time, if you were going to go on a serious spiritual quest, it was common to become a renunciant, so he left his home, his wife and children, and his princely ease and wealth to seek answers. After six years of arduous spiritual practices and disciplines like fasting and self-mortification, after mastering religious teachings and many styles of meditation, he realized he had to face the truth that he had not found the answer he was seeking.
This was the Buddha’s turning point – a period of great despair for him. Imagine you have given up everything in your life to go on a quest and you have done the hard work, you have practiced and studied with the great teachers of the day, yet after years of seeking you realize you have not found what you were looking for. What a disappointment! On top of that, the Buddha was starving to death, because his ascetic practices had worn down his body – he looked like a skeleton. We know the image of the Buddha sitting under the bodhi tree, but we often forget that what got him under the bodhi tree was the pain of meeting his own edge, of being brought to a place within himself that he did not know how to break through. In this difficult moment, he did not know he was approaching that mysterious and powerful dawning of grace that would open a new vista of realization – of connection with life.
The bodhi tree is a mythic motif. The tree stands for the tree of life, much like the tree of immortality in the Qur’an or the tree of knowledge in the book of Genesis in the Bible. Adam and Eve plucked the fruit from the tree. The Buddha did not take anything from the bodhi tree but sat down under it. He sat with the stark reality of life. He committed himself to life, but not in the way we usually think of committing ourselves – squeezing it for all the vitality we can. Instead he sat down at the root of existence and tried to find a resolution to the unavoidable fact of human existence, and he woke up. That is why the image of the Buddha under the bodhi tree is a teaching unto itself. When we come to a great barrier, when we find a place inside us we do not know how to navigate, when we are in a painful experience that we cannot avoid, we need to sit down right there – at the root of that experience, at the root of the tree of life – and be still. It is not an easy teaching, but it is a great teaching: be still amid difficulty, making yourself available to whatever is occurring in that moment.
Being still is not an act of physical motionlessness or of quieting the mind. It is about being available to whatever is occurring in every moment. When we are completely open – even if it is difficult – we have stopped fighting against life, we have stopped moving against whatever situation we find ourselves in, and there is a possibility for discovery. This is where a great movement of grace can occur. We stop trying to run away from what is and sit down right in the middle of it – even if it is unknown – and reach a place of deeper understanding.
It takes a lot of faith to sit down right in the middle of your existence. This is not the same as the ‘faith’ that a doctrine or teaching or teacher is the truth. That is actually a belief, which tells us how to interpret life and find comfort and safety within it; a belief provides a way of insulating ourselves from real faith – from real trust. Faith in its purest sense is something different. Faith allows us to let go of belief, of how we habitually translate each moment of our experience into a conceptual model that seems to make it easier to understand, seems to give us some control, and eases the feeling of insecurity we have whenever we find ourselves on some edge. Your edge could be challenges in your work or relationship; it could be illness or a loved one’s death or even your own impending death; it could be your feeling very challenged by the great sorrow of the world. A lot of things can make you feel like you are on an edge and you do not know what to do with it.”
Adyashanti. “The Most Important Thing. Discovering Truth at the Heart of Life.” Sounds True, 2019.