PATH OF GLORY
The following interview was conducted by Jill Dearman for Barnes & Noble's Writer to Writer:
This week I spoke with Abdi Assadi, author of Shadows on the Path, about his book and his approach to healing. Let’s just say he’s not your baby boomer mother’s spiritual healer.
JD: In your book, Shadows on the Path, you make the case that words can often confuse us in our search for the truth. To illustrate your point, you share a story from the Zen tradition about a stick pointing to the moon. Could you share the tale and elaborate on it here?
ABDI: Ah, the master wordsmith taking me to task on the function of words in our lives! Lao Tzu started the Taoist classic, Tao Te Ching, by stating: “Those who speak do not know, those who know do not speak”. Chuang Tzu, the satirist Taoist philosopher that came after him, is purported to have said, “The old man starts by stating those who speak do not know, and then writes a whole book!” What Lao Tzu was warning us about is the difficulty of conveying direct experience with words. Intellectual concepts and internal experience are not the same. But if no one attempted to share their experience, this would be a pretty boring place to pass time in. Any of us who has devoured a solid book know that words can be liberating. A good writer can put the real experience using words out there, but she still can not give us the direct experience.
That is the warning of the Zen story. It is about the danger of words and concepts when we are attempting to point out something real. In the analogy, a person picks up a stick to point out the moon and we are warned not to confuse the stick with the moon. That is, not to stare at the stick instead of looking at the moon. I view it as a good intention to hold for any of us who are interested in communicating. Writer be aware.
JD: As you know, I believe strongly in the practice of using one’s intuition to illuminate a clear strategy for solving life’s problems. In your book, you talk about how people can often become more confused when they search for “the” answer, whether through the escape of drugs or the seeming help of gurus. How can someone who is overloaded with confusion (and who isn’t?) tune out the contradictory messages and tune in to inner truth? (And yes, I want “the” one true answer. Ha!)
ABDI: Of course, I am the jackass that will try to give you “the” answer! Do remember, “those who speak do not know, and those who know do not speak”…
Such an important point you are putting out here. I would start by saying that truth has consequences, and we are all aware of that. So, many times, we really don’t want the answer because the answer can involve catastrophic changes for the ego. One thing I have learned from decades of being a healer is that many of us unconsciously are quite comfortable with our suffering. No matter how much we might deride that fact consciously. Secondly, intuition is not a switch we can throw on and off. Once we become conscious of its song, it will constantly hold us up to task of what needs to come or go. That takes tremendous courage since our inner being and our ego are rarely on the same page. What feeds the ego many times can suffocate our soul, and vice versa. It takes deep inner work to get these two aspects of ourselves on the same page. Many times, the act of seeking the answer through the myriad of ways that we do - is, in fact, a distraction of the highest order. The seeking has to be given up at some point. The truth is always right under our nose if we slow down enough to listen.
To your point, absolutely intuition can and must be used as a compass to steer our inner and outer life. But, it is a relationship and, as such, must be fostered with utmost care. It is the deepening of this relationship that can help us when contradictory voices are at work. The inner truth is always screaming the loudest; we don’t need to tune in to it, as much as work on not tuning it out. A regular grounding practice is the surest way I have found for learning to listen.
JD: I saw an interview that designer Norma Kamali did with you recently, in which you say that “Science is the new religion”, and continue on to describe our culture as generally closed-minded. Yet, at the same, you are no cheerleader of anyone or any group that describes itself as “spiritual”. You aptly describe our society as very binary, either-or. How do you think we as a culture can embrace the great tools science provides us with and the potential that spiritual concepts offer us?
ABDI: We want absolutes in our lives, and science is one of the things intellectuals can reach out to in order to have that false sense of safety. Life is not static, and nothing in it is for certain, and our egos are terrified of that fact. So, we look towards ways that we can protect ourselves. Science is one of those things. I finished my pre-med degree in a scientific research-oriented school, and it was mind-boggling how small-minded my teachers were. People forget that science is an ever-changing and growing field. Doctors were pushing as well as consuming cigarettes only 60 years ago. Margarine was the new wonder food. We tend to forget these things. We tend to forget that science is constantly moving the goal post. What we were sure to be truth 10 years ago, has been proven to be a lot more nuanced, if not off. But science is presented as absolute and that is not honest. We also forget that scientists have the same cultural blind spots that we do. Some of the greatest scientific minds of our time have been subverted to serve the agenda of corporations that have no interest in truth, but rather profit. So, my saying that science is the new religion is pointing to my understanding that science will not have the answer to our internal seeking. Science can certainly help break our hypnosis and dogma of ridiculous outmoded ways of thinking, but it can also replace it with new ones of its own making. So, I am not preaching antiscience here, but rather awareness of the fact that it is a tool, not an end in itself. But people “believe” in science with the same fervor that they believe in religion, because people often need to believe in something to make them feel on solid ground.
And you are correct; I am not a fan of any organized spiritual group, because any organization by definition becomes interested in its own propagation rather than truth. Truth is dangerous for anyone or thing that takes a solid position. Egos take solid positions, and truth decimates egos by the simple act of pointing out the impermanent nature of this realm.
Where science and spirituality meet is the world of quantum physics. Life is a lot stranger than we are led to believe. We are all functioning under a Newtonian model to this point. It is mind-blowing to try to even comprehend the quantum model, even as a neophyte. And that mind-blowing is exactly what happens with a genuine spiritual awakening.
JD: So many people in the West put on a mask and espouse the ancient concepts of the East. Many go searching for spiritual masters in the East. Do you think that the so-called Eastern way of living has something to teach us, or - in this globally connected world - is the “East”, as we may think about it in terms of ancient teachings, no longer the place to go for answers?
ABDI: We can learn from everything and everyone. The question is the degree of validity of transplanting one culture on another without being conscious of the pitfalls of it. Here you are as a woman, writer, a lover, a mother. How will the teachings of patriarchal society, most likely from a male monk, relate to you? There are some shining exempts of clear teachings, but those are rare in my experience. Usually, there is cultural baggage that comes with those teachings. So, we have to be cognizant of these shortcomings. For example, how do we apply a monk’s teachings to someone who does not live an ascetic life?
As I said before, the whole seeking trip is another way of hiding. It is an initial stage. It is like collecting menus, one is not yet eating. The real spiritual process begins when we stop collecting menus, and sit at the table and start eating. Also, there is this misnomer that spiritual awakening is an event. In actuality it is a process, with valleys and mountains.
JD: You and I have talked many times about the concept of “hard work as magic”. For all of us, truly tapping into what we know in our core is very, very challenging. But, do you think someone has to have special gifts to “tap in” a little bit more deeply, the way someone might have an innate gift for music or sports? How can a person who thinks of themselves as very non-spiritual, tap into the old “don’t know” mind and really see things clearly, just as clearly as a self-proclaimed spiritual person can?
ABDI: Yes, yes: hard work as magic. I love that. In our culture of instant gratification and instant celebrity, we do not cop to the fact that magic starts and ends with hard work. Magic is when we don’t see the hard work, and see the result. Let’s take you as a writer: you have an innate gift for it, but you have spent years honing that gift, grinding away, pulling your hair out to get your juices flowing. So, even in the case of the gift, hard work is still involved to bring it to a high art. Yet, I can see you with minimal effort write powerful prose, without knowing that there is decades of discipline and hard work behind it.
As to your question of wanting to see things clearly: non-spiritual people have a huge advantage over spiritual people. This is because they don’t have preconceived ideas. Spiritual people have all kinds of concepts about truth. But, we can rest assured that none of them are even close to the reality because they are constructs of the ego. “Don’t know mind”, the Zen concept of letting go of the mind’s attempt at identifying everything, is a profound practice.
Nisargadatta Maharaj, the old grumpy enlightened Indian master used to say: “You don’t have to understand, enough if you don’t misunderstand”. I love that saying. We can not know the truth until it splits us open. But we can certainly know untruth. We have to let go of our fascination with misunderstanding and the pain that it brings upon us. That is a tall order for a culture that disseminates misunderstanding as way of life. But if we pay attention on a daily level, we can become more clear. We will realize that we are that we seek. Understanding is our true nature; we just have to stop distracting ourselves. The truth will become self-evident.