The Myth: Awakening is a shift of perception, a mental-emotional acrobatic that leaves one refreshingly peaceful and delightfully uninvested in personal identity, but that has no impact whatsoever on the physical body.
The Truth: Awakening is a radical of shift of identity that leaves one refreshingly peaceful and delightfully uninvested in personal identity, but that has profound impact on the body (and ultimately requires collaboration of the body).
A spirited controversy erupted this week over spiritual teacher Igor Kufayev’s commentary on his Facebook page (then reposted by Rick Archer at Buddha at the Gas Pump’s FB Page) about neo-advaita teacher Adyashanti’s most recent bout of a chronic illness that apparently emerged in the years after his awakening. In a nutshell, Igor Kufayev suggested that Adyashanti’s recent relapse of Bell’s Palsy was a part of a larger picture–that of the toll of post-awakening energies on the body.
Wrote Kufayev: “What it brings is a sober reminder of how little we know and even less understand about the actuality of the process (of awakening) which demands realignment of all bodily systems to function in a totally different set of circumstances often unleashed by major impact of awakening.”
Folks were quick to defend Adya’s illness, to declare that it had nothing to do with the process of self-realization, and to accuse Igor Kufayev of being an opportunist in his decision to comment publicly about the state of another teacher.
But as someone who has experienced a profound awakening three years ago, I can say there are physical repercussions, side-effects both challenging and very often baffling. I have battled with unholy levels of fatigue; insomnia; a vibrating body that sometimes feels like a locomotive; heart palpitations (with no known medical cause); a complete inability to sustain vigorous exercise without near collapse (and I was a lifelong exercise fiend); migraine headaches (I’d suffered one only lifelong, during pregnancy years ago) and perhaps most challenging in the context of my marriage, the loss of sexual desire and a spontaneous move toward celibacy. Oh, and did I mention the rare and little understood auto-immune disease?
Part of the problem with coming out and declaring that an abiding awakening to true nature (which Adyashanti terms enlightenment) is a process that also involves the body, is that in contemporary non-duality circles, there is s strong preference to jump to the Absolute at the expense of the finite. But to dismiss the body as “unreal” is to leap frog over the very obvious fact that this enlightenment happens not when we are dead (that we know) but while we are alive. And being alive means –not incidentally– having a body.
In the words of Kufayev in response to criticisms of his post about Adyashanti’s health, “It’s not …. even about Adya’s illness, but about the sickness so prevalent in western spirituality which denies the body as the carrier of the soul.”
Igor Kufayev is not a voice in the wilderness, exactly.
There are other teachers telling the truth, including Adyashanti himself who devotes a whole chapter in his book The End of Your World to the topic of the impact of Awakening on the body. And by no means does Adya deny the body, despite the prevalence of that kind of denial by many teachers of contemporary non-duality.
In fact, Adya has said, “Ultimately, everything’s a dream, and yet you still have to deal with the body. It’s still there. You can call it “a dream,” but it’s still going to hurt if you bump your head.”
Yes. It will hurt when you bump your head, and when you bump into awakening, especially if the body is not particularly purified or ready.
This quote by teacher Anadi speaks directly to the impact of awakening on all levels. “We need to understand that enlightenment is not only a shift in perception and consciousness. It is an existential metamorphosis at all levels, which radically transforms the vibration of our energy system and the delicate balance of various elements in our brain and the subtle bodies. A sudden and complete enlightenment that skips all the intermediate steps would undoubtedly lead to a mental and emotional collapse, if not the physical death. Such a radical transformation as enlightenment requires adequate time for the body and mind to adapt to the dramatic change of energy and identity.”
a : change of physical form, structure, or substance especially by supernatural means.
b : a striking alteration in appearance, character, or circumstances.
What strikes me most about metamorphosis, is that it’s not subtle. It’s not like, “Oh, I think I’m no longer a caterpillar.” Rather, it’s more like: “Holy crap, I’ve got wings.”
Yet in the morphing toward winghood, there is this small bit of concern called the body. And rather than the body being collateral damage in this process of awakening, I will suggest it is instrumental.
By that I mean, the body is the vector for enlightenment. It is literally the delivery mechanism by which we experience the vastness of who we really are—at least while alive.
And if you look at cases like that of brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor, who experienced what she described as enlightenment via a catastrophic stroke that shut down much of her left brain, then you have to admit this: the brain is a key player in how we perceive reality–and who we are.
If you have not had the chance to read “My Stroke of Insight” then at the very least watch this woman’s riveting Ted Talk in which she declares:
“Nirvana. I found Nirvana. And I remember thinking, there’s no way I would ever be able to squeeze the enormousness of myself back inside this tiny little body.
But then I realized, “But I’m still alive! I’m still alive, and I have found Nirvana. And if I have found Nirvana and I’m still alive, then everyone who is alive can find Nirvana.” And I pictured a world filled with beautiful, peaceful, compassionate, loving people who knew that they could come to this space at any time. And that they could purposely choose to step to the right of their left hemispheres and find this peace. And then I realized what a tremendous gift this experience could be, what a stroke of insight this could be to how we live our lives.“
What Jill Bolte Taylor is declaring is nothing short of revolutionary. A brain scientist has a stroke that knocks out her left brain and forces the right brain to dominate. As a result she writes a book where she basically says that what stands in the way of being a loving compassionate being who realizes itself as Oneness is simply our left brain.
Despite all the hoopla around defending Adyashanti’s right to his illness (sometimes I think we want our enlightened teachers to be mortally flawed just like us), it’s important to note that this illness happened to him (along with a little known stroke) AFTER his awakening.
And despite assertions by many that the body is irrelevant in awakening and post awakening, it might heed us all to listen to Adya’s own words on this topic in a letter to his Sangha Feb 2008:
“ I want to share with you some recent developments since I contracted Bell’s Palsy in early November. There are various causes of Bell’s Palsy, but mine seems to have been caused by a particular virus that causes not only facial paralysis but also nerve pain and fatigue. While I am happy to report that much of the paralysis and pain has healed, the underlying virus is still very active and gets activated by the energy that flows through me when I teach.”
I’ve placed in bold that last line because it’s clear here that Adya is admitting that this illness is exacerbated by something he vaguely terms “energy that flows.” Of course a tantric master might call it kundalini or shakti, but in Adyashanti’s “Zen” roots, and in most non-duality circles, there is no such beast. Why? Because kundalini is energy and it moves in this “illusory” thing called a body, this carrier for our soul that is vulnerable to illness and breakdown.
Why are we not ready to hear this? And why do we shut down, diminish, hide or crucify those who tell us the body is not incidental in awakening; that the body is the gateway itself?
Even a Taylor’s TED Talk is benignly billed as “Jill Bolte Taylor got a research opportunity few brain scientists would wish for: She had a massive stroke, and watched as her brain functions — motion, speech, self-awareness — shut down one by one.”
Yet her talk could easily and more accurately have been promoted as: “Brain scientist reveals the doorway to enlightenment is a matter of brain function.”
I suggest we are afraid to admit our bodies are key players in awakening because that suggests we might care for these vessels better. That we might tend the garden in which awareness of true nature might sprout. That we are stewards of the vehicle of our own enlightenment.
But to admit that is like admitting we might care for this planet as well, this homestead in our solar system that sustains life. It’s easier all round to dismiss the body and the planet as illusion, to imagine an ultimate reality that negates this proximate messy one called the earth and my body.
And let’s not even discuss the chance that an awakening that does not become ‘abiding” is perhaps an aborted one? What if, just as a fetus will not continue to grow in a hostile womb, the light of our own awareness can be choked off by the neglect of the very body it seeks to flourish in?
And what if too, there are casualties of awakening, where the fire of newly liberated awareness burns down the tinder-dry house of a body that is far from ready to withstand the heat of this metamorphic transformation? As teacher Kufayev often notes, many famous sages have died early, and of wasting diseases like cancer.
These are uncomfortable heresies in the absolutist world of modern non-duality. This is why we shoot the messengers rather than engage the message. The message is scary and formidable. But the messenger is an easy target.
It’s been a physically strenuous last three years. I don’t write about it because it’s not exactly a popular platform: Step right up, get your peace, joy, vastness, and oh, enlightenment sicknesses.
But I also know this body is re-wiring. This vehicle is fine-tuning. And when it’s not keeping up with the enlightenment program, it’s often because I am treating my physical being like bystander, or idle witness when it’s the fiber optic through which God surges.
And so, I’m learning. I’m learning to rest more. To meditate regularly (instant tune up). To eat better. To tenderly care for this precious body, this superconductor for grace.
Awareness is here, resting in bed, sipping Yogi tea.