Bliss is a By-Product

Adyashanti warns against chasing enlightenment down the wrong path.Adyashanti

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Bliss is a By-productMost of what we are told about awakening sounds like a sales pitch for enlightenment. In a sales pitch, we are told only the most positive aspects; we may even be told things that are not actually true. In the sales pitch for awakening, we are told that enlightenment is all about love and ecstasy, compassion and union, and a host of other positive experiences. It is often shrouded in fantastic stories, so we come to believe that awakening has to do with miracles and mystical powers. One of the most common sales pitches includes describing enlightenment as an experience of bliss. As a result, people think, “When I spiritually awaken, when I have union with God, I will enter into a state of constant ecstasy.” This is, of course, a deep misunderstanding of what awakening is.

There may be bliss with awakening, because it is actually a by-product of awakening, but it is not awakening itself. As long as we are chasing the byproducts of awakening, we will miss the real thing. This is a problem, because many spiritual practices attempt to reproduce the by-products of awakening without giving rise to the awakening itself. We can learn certain meditative techniques—chanting mantras or singing bhajans, for example—and certain positive experiences will be produced. The human consciousness is tremendously pliable, and by taking part in certain spiritual practices, techniques, and disciplines, you can indeed produce many of the by-products of awakening—states of bliss, openness, and so on. But what often happens is that you end up with only the byproducts of awakening, without the awakening itself.

It is important that we know what awakening is not, so that we no longer chase the by-products of awakening. We must give up the pursuit of positive emotional states through spiritual practice. The path of awakening is not about positive emotions. On the contrary, enlightenment may not be easy or positive at all. It is not easy to have our illusions crushed. It is not easy to let go of long-held perceptions. We may experience great resistance to seeing through even those illusions that cause us a great amount of pain.

This is something many people don’t know they’re signing up for when they start on a quest for spiritual awakening. As a teacher, one of the things that I find out about students relatively early on is whether they are interested in the real thing—do they really want the truth, or do they actually just want to feel better? Because the process of finding the truth may not be a process by which we feel increasingly better and better. It may be a process by which we look at things honestly, sincerely, truthfully, and that may or may not be an easy thing to do. ▼

From The End of Your World, © 2009 by Adyashanti. Reprinted with permission from Sounds True.

Image © Michael S. Wertz

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Metta_08's picture

This is a very important article. Basically it relates to the need for clearly separating spiritual happiness and mundane happiness. Through the practise, one can gain some relief from difficult thoughts by watching the arising and ceasing (impermanent) nature of difficult thoughts (and building the ability to let go these thoughts). This act can contribute to his/her mundane happiness.
Enlightenment is about seeing the arising and ceasing (impermanent) nature of all thoughts. Positive thoughts/feelings come and go and negative thoughts/feelings come and go, based on various causes and conditions. Even the thought “now I have reached enlightenment” (a positive thought) is an arising and ceasing thought (even in an individual who has reached enlightenment).
To understand this process, the following academic article can be very useful:

fgauer1's picture

This is a great article that strikes right to the heart of it's subject matter. Excellent in my opinion. Bear in mind that we would not be practicing unless there was some kind of 'goal' or 'outcome' to our efforts. Yeah, yeah, yeah, there is no 'goal', blah, blah, blah, insert favorite Zen quote here, blah, blah, blah. I know, I know. I've heard it a million times...

There is a goal. It's just that our dualistic language can't touch it. Language and concept with regards to framing the outcome don't stand a chance at communicating it. And yeah, it's not bliss, per se. Bliss is pretty cool though, and it's a worthy and welcome signpost along the way. Why wouldn't it be? This Mystery has some extremely incomprehensible aspects to it, and tasting some 'omg wtf glorious' bliss is one of them.

I've heard a Thai monk once state that a closer concept to Enlightenment is something we describe as 'relief'. And yes, working with what clouds this 'relief' is what this article refers to. It's our kind of smelly, hard, distasteful aspects that provide the true material to work with. Those habits, negative emotions, irritations, fears, low states, etc. aren't giving themselves up easily. But after the work is put in, and they do manage to give themselves up for even a split second (and they do because they are impermanent)...(bing)

Once again this article and discussion is spot on. Excellent!

dewhiteside's picture

I've practiced yoga and meditation off and on (mostly off) for 20-some years and have had a daily vipassana meditation practice for five. I don't recall ever experiencing bliss while meditating, but often encountered pain--I've often wept on the cushion. Still I keep at it because ever-so-slowly I seem to be fumbling into a better way to be in the world ... and as a side product I am less depressed than before I took to the cushion. Still, I have no idea what enlightenment is nor whether I'm on the path there. But discovering some of the truth about myself and the world seems to go hand-in-hand with painful insights that eventually lead to feeling better. I often wonder, though, whether I'm seeking the "right" goal--whatever that is--or just engaged in an elaborate self-help program. Then again, I've often read that the Buddha was a very pragmatic thinker and teacher, so maybe feeling better isn't a bad thing. Maybe, as others have noted in this thread, it can keep one motivated until the real thing is discovered?

fgauer1's picture

...boy your description of 'fumbling' is really spot on. That is really, really accurate and in my very limited opinion (I'm no expert).

hostsipes's picture

I experienced bliss as an outcome of meditation for many years--pursuing that bliss was my motivation for continued practice. Eventually the practice led me to many insights including the insight that bliss was not the point. I am thankful for the bliss because it kept me going with a steady practice for years. In other words, I had the wrong motivation for years but eventually worked my way beyond to a more authentic motivation. It seems to me that it might be a bit unrealistic to expect beginning or even intermediate practitioners to have pure motivation from the very beginning. After all, we have not realized our awakening yet and therefore are unlikely to have enlightened motivation. We all start this path in a state of delusion and our practice helps work our way through one delusion after another.

jiwjrbus's picture

Kinda like falling in love? The bliss gets you started and makes it possible to stay for the work that is to follow.'s picture

very helpful - thank you

oliverhow's picture

Thank you.

jackelope65's picture

Realizing that I had and have a life filled with greed, arrogance, pride anger, and delusion despite years of practice comes as quite a shock if unexpected but something as simple as physical fitness for running requires almost daily practice to prevent regression, and the worst days are often the most productive. Enlightenment, then so much more complicated but as the analogy goes, as simple as putting one foot ahead of the next, requires regular practice and often the most difficult sessions are the most productive, though painful. Having not achieved enlightenment myself, and something that cannot be fully transmitted in words, I can not state whether suffering occurs after enlightenment or not, but wonder if if the desire for all beings to be enlightened is a form of suffering in and of itself?'s picture

This is speaking to me for sure this morning - wondering about your statement "As a teacher, one of the things that I find out about students relatively early on is whether they are interested in the real thing—do they really want the truth, or do they actually just want to feel better? " - can it change? Even though this has not been a blissful process there still seems to be a strong resistance to applying effort where there is no "result"

JKH's picture

Absolutely it can change. You use the power of intention. You decide your practice is going to be authentic and you tell yourself as often as needed. Your brain will then start reminding you of your intention. The key is finding your own cues to feeling how you strive, or cling. When you start doing so while wanting your practice to be different, or while working with difficult emotions and intrusive thoughts, remember this is your practice, and start practicing being with it and letting go of the striving. Ezra Bayda has several books out that all deal with having an authentic practice. Working with our problems is what it is all about, not escaping them.

mikegingold's picture

I think that the problem with motivation is the expectation of 'result'. The lust for a result is merely another form of grasping, the root cause of dukkha (as in the second Noble Truth). We should practice patiently with diligence and not expect a personal reward (bliss), although this may come as a bonus!

glenzorn's picture

The Buddha seems to disagree: "Nibbana is bliss supreme." - -Dhammapada 204

marginal person's picture

The writer makes a good point about starting a practice with right understanding but ......
There are as many motivations to pursue awakening as there are human hearts that have been broken.
Who can say whether embarking down the "wrong path" won't lead to awakening.
A fool who persists in his folly shall be wise (although it may take awhile).

melcher's picture

Enlightenment, perceived as an "event" or a signpost on the road of living is a misunderstanding. Awakening is a process without a goal or endpoint. One must go on living.

glenzorn's picture

This idea seems to be very popular lately. I seem to recall, though, when asked what he was (god, human, etc.) the Buddha answered "Awake" rather than "Engaged in an ongoing, endless process of awakening". This suggests that it might be possible to actually wake up, rather than spending one's life explaining why it's impossible. What really troubles me about the whole "awakening-as-endless-process" thing, though, is that it seems to subjugate enlightenment to time, since processes necessarily take place in time.

oliverhow's picture

Thanks for this short thread...very helpful.

oliverhow's picture

Thanks for this short thread...very helpful.

marginal person's picture

Excellent point.
It seems a major disagreement among various sects of religious Buddhism is whether awakening is instantaneous or whether it takes a long time.
Perhaps this is a case where language is inadequate because it may be both instantaneous and also might take awhile.

Dominic Gomez's picture

On top of that are different notions of the nature of enlightenment, Western vs. Buddhist definitions of the term, various ideas of what a buddha actually is, et al.

trishaenglish's picture

Thank you for this article. Some very valuable insights here, especially
the central truth that bliss is a by-product. Awakening cannot be attained
by "wanting it". It comes without motive and it manifests in stillness. Maybe
it is always there but obscured by thought and the graspings that thought gives
rise to. When the self, or the observer, is absent, direct "seeing" is the

Dominic Gomez's picture

When Shakyamuni became an awakened one the first thing he did was talk to other people about his realization. Rather than bliss he was in pursuit of the truth of life.

hostsipes's picture

I will say one word in favor of bliss. It is what kept me meditating for many years until I came to the realization that bliss was not the answer. I would sit on my cushion and meditate intensely hour after hour until I experienced the bliss that was so wonderful. I thought it was the answer and that some day it would be bliss all the time. The by-product of pursuing this bliss was that it was a great motivator for meditating and my mind finally figured out in its own time that bliss was not the real thing. Now I have other motivations for meditating but I still have a soft spot in my heart for my friend bliss who helped me along the way.

jackelope65's picture

Karma has been at work with me in what initially appeared to be in a serendipitous manner. Yesterday I received an e-mail advertisement for CDs that had recordings of deep meditator's brain wave patterns. At first I thought it may be great for reaching a rapid deep state of meditation myself without thought, but then upon meditating myself, I saw anxiety, loneliness, ager rise up with thoughts, and boredom also raised its ugly head. The feelings at times were painful making it difficult to concentrate, retain clarity, as well as equanimity. As I meditated, I realized impermanence more as the thoughts and feelings began to dissipate and through analytical meditation, I understood that sitting was my true meditation, and as you kindly pointed out, the CDs of brain waves would only lead to " by-products " of meditation that could result in attachment and holt any true progression to a more awakened state. I did not buy the brain wave CDS; you discussion clarified my thinking and I will continue to avoid gimmicks that only lead to meditation " by-products." Thank you.

sallyotter's picture

Twenty-some ago, when I first joined a 12 step program, a young woman in a meeting warned about spiritual greed. About 9 years ago, I picked up a book by Pema Chodron that introduced me to the idea of facing my truth, not running away. Buddhism has given me the path, the structure, the courage to do this without grasping for an emotional high. Acceptance of reality. Interesting. I honestly don't know what "enlightenment" is, I do know that I'm just sitting here learning to let go.

khickey's picture

I love what you said in your last line...I feel the same way!!

bsalie's picture

"Spiritual Greed", what a fantastically simple way to put it! grasping at the bliss is part of the learning curve. I think most people not raised in practice come to it to feel better, because they are tired or fed-up with how they feel or don't feel. I know I did. I have stepped tentatively on and off a spiritual path for 20 years. Then one day I stepped into a Yoga studio.
A few months ago, after a loss in my life, I began a Tonglen meditation practice, I use what is available to me Yoga, Kirtan, Metta meditation. This time Tonglen and watching, reading, just soaking up everything Pema Chodron had to say was it.The pain was there, will always be there there its not bad or good. Now that I am through that time in my life, I am happier. How wonderful is my life? Because of this loss I now have another tool to use, another experience to use in my growth. I'm just that much closer being less fearful. I agree, let go of "enlightenment" and just live.

glenzorn's picture

Bliss is not the problem, clinging to bliss is the problem.

junechun's picture

I am not a good practitioner in the sense of sitting, don't even dream about enlightment.
And these articles and discussions are just puzzling than inspiring.
But I would like to share my personal experience, which I think at least it was a realization?
One day I was hurting very badly by my son's comment, it was so painful especially because I have a lot of guilt feeling about the pain I inflicted on him due to my divorce. And I was sitting in the sauna heartaching, and all of sudden I remembered that there is no ego, I guess
I was so desperate. If there is no ego, there shouldn't be any hurting. I could only think of my son's feeling not mine, and I could feel the aches draining out through my gut. I would never forget that moment. But unfortunately that didn't work all the time afterwards. Maybe I was not desperate enough. But at least I am trying, "This will also pass."
Positive or negative.

cobham's picture

Hi junechun,
When you're describing your unforgettable moment/breakthrough I get what you mean and my heart went out to you. Bravo for staying with the intensely hurtful feeling, it's not easy! When I stayed with the hurtful feeling, it felt more like reaching rock bottom for me then joy seemingly arose out of nowhere with a "where did that come from?" feeling. A decade later, I read a very helpful article in Yoga Journal called "Feel Your Way" by Sally Kempton (which you can read on her web site) describing a practice in which you stay with the hurt while it dissipates. Then I found staying with the painful feeling (again it felt like rock bottom) suddenly swung into joy with a see-saw-like movement. Then a few years later, after reading Pema Chodron's description of a practice called 'Tonglen' in her book: "Comfortable with Uncertainty",the same experience of being with the painful emotion, when joy bobbed up like a cork floating in water. Obviously, this can just be dismissed as impermanence. But if you can find anything in this that's of help to you to ease the hurt next time, then that's my intention.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Sutras prior to the Lotus were Shakyamuni's expedient means of bringing people to a greater (maha) awareness than they were accustomed. Fleeting states of bliss or ascensions into heavenly paradises were inadvertently believed by later students of Buddhism to be its final goals.

ann.callaway11's picture

My understanding is that WE are the ones who label our emotions as positive or perhaps what we are being warned about is to avoid pursuing any particular "result"...rather, to do the practices for themselves alone...with "no gaining thoughts" as they say in Buddhist circles.

ann callaway

davidk's picture

Thank you so much for this article. For some odd reason I seem to learn and awaken a bit more when I take that walk on the dark side and see what I am have missed or ignored.

But can you clarify something for me? The Daily Dharma article by Robert Augustus Masters stated

"There isn’t any such thing as a negative emotion. There are negative things that we do with our emotions, but our emotions themselves are neither negative nor positive. They simply are."

In your article you speak about positive states "We must give up the pursuit of positive emotional states through spiritual practice. The path of awakening is not about positive emotions"

The two thoughts seem to contradict each other.

Can you help me process the difference in the two thoughts?

Thank you so much.


Lorireazin's picture

You have your answer right here - " ... our emotions themselves are neither negative nor positive. They simply are."

celticpassage's picture

Hi David.

The issue here is that those are not awakened (relatively speaking) do see emotional experiences as positive or negative. However, awakening is not about seeking ANY emotional experience or special state.

Few would seek out 'negative' emotional states, so they are only warned about seeking out positive ones.

justjeff's picture

David, I can completely relate to your learning more while walking on the dark side. It seems that we have to go back and face all the fears and pain that we've experienced in the past but never dealt with before we can be free. I had a day just recently where feelings of depression I hadn't experienced in many years returned, initially inciting a panic in me. But this time instead of running away I stayed with the feelings, analyzing what they were physically and what thoughts and stories went along with them and lo and behold, it worked! No I wasn't filled with bliss but I was left with an understanding that running from our feelings only serves to empower them. I'm not sure I can reconcile the two statements though I agree with both of them. They are phrased in such a way that we see we don't need to push away feelings we experience as bad or grasp for the ones that we label good. Just my $0.02.

jackelope65's picture

In my path towards awakening, of which I only glimpse horizons, I have found many painful truths which have acted as signposts toward a direction which ultimately be infinite in length.