A Personal Note
Ever since my first days as a doctor, forty years ago, people have asked for answers. A medical treatment was what they wanted, but the reassurance and comfort that human contact could bring was just as valuable, perhaps even more so. Unless he’s completely burned out, a physician sees himself as a rough- and- ready savior, yanking victims out of danger into a state of safety and well- being.
I’m grateful for my years seeing patients, because I learned the difference between advice and solutions. People who are in trouble are rarely helped by advice. Crises don’t wait; something very bad will happen if the right solution isn’t found.
I kept the same standard in mind when writing this book. It began with people writing me with troubles on their minds. Their letters were sent from around the world— at one point I was answering questions daily or weekly from India, the United States, and many other locales, mostly through the Internet. Yet in a sense everyone was writing from the same place inside, where confusion and darkness had overwhelmed them. These people were hurt, betrayed, abused, misunderstood, ill, worried, anxious, and at times desperate. Sadly, that is the human condition, almost permanently for some people, but these feelings are always possible for people who are happy and contented— for the moment.
I wanted to give answers that were lasting enough so that when “for the moment” changes, when crisis descends and a challenge must be faced, solid solutions were at hand. I call them spiritual solutions, but the term doesn’t mean religious solutions, prayer, or surrender to God. Instead I envision a secular spirituality. This is the only way modern people will ever reconnect with their souls, or, to remove all religious overtones, their “true selves.”
What has a crisis done to you personally? What ever the situation, you drew back, contracted inside, and felt the grip of anxiety. This state of contracted awareness is the enemy of finding a solution. Real solutions to a crisis come from expanded awareness. The inner feeling is no longer tight and fearful. Boundaries give way; fresh ideas have space to grow. If you are able to contact your true self, awareness has no boundaries. From that place, solutions emerge spontaneously, and they work. Often they work like magic, and obstacles that seemed immovable melt away. When that happens, the burden of anxiety and sorrow is lifted completely. Life was never meant to be a struggle. Life was meant to unfold from its source in pure awareness. If this book leaves only one lasting impression, that’s the one I’m hoping for.
What Is a Spiritual Solution?
No one will disagree that life brings challenges, but step back for a moment and ask the deeper question, which is why. Why is life so difficult? No matter what advantages you are born with— money, intelligence, an appealing personality, a sunny outlook, or good social connections— none of these provides a magic key to an easy existence. Somehow life manages to bring difficult problems, the causes of untold suffering and struggle. How you meet your challenges makes all the difference between the promise of success and the specter of failure. Is there a reason for this, or is life simply a random series of events that keeps us off balance and barely able to cope?
Spirituality begins with a decisive answer to that question. It says that life isn’t random. There is pattern and purpose inside every existence. The reason that challenges arise is simple: to make you more aware of your inner purpose.
If the spiritual answer is true, there should be a spiritual solution to every problem— and there is. The answer doesn’t lie at the level of the problem, even though most people focus all their energies at that level. The spiritual solution lies beyond. When you can take your awareness outside the place where struggle is ever-present, two things happen at the same time: your awareness expands, and with that, new answers begin to appear. When awareness expands, events that seem random actually aren’t. A larger purpose is trying to unfold through you. When you become aware of that purpose— which is unique for each person— you become like an architect who has been handed the blueprint. Instead of laying bricks and fitting pipes at random, the architect can now proceed with confidence that he knows what the building should look like and how to construct it.
The first step in this process is recognizing what level of awareness you are working from right now. Every time a challenge comes your way, whether it is about relationships, work, personal transitions, or a crisis that demands action, there are three levels of awareness. Become aware of them, and you will take a huge step toward finding a better answer.
Level 1: Contracted Awareness
This is the level of the problem, and therefore it immediately grabs your attention. Something has gone wrong. Expectations have turned sour. You face obstacles that don’t want to move. As resistance mounts, your situation still doesn’t improve. If you examine the level of the problem, the following elements are generally present:
Your desires are thwarted. Something you want is meeting with opposition. You feel as if every step forward is a battle.
You keep doing more of what never worked in the first place.
There is an underlying anxiety and fear of failure.
Your mind isn’t clear. There is confusion and inner conflict.
As frustration mounts, your energy is depleted. You feel more and more exhausted.
You can tell if you are stuck at the level of contracted awareness by one simple test:
The more you struggle to get free of a problem, the more you are trapped in it.
Level 2: Expanded Awareness
This is the level where solutions begin to appear. Your vision extends beyond the conflict, giving you more clarity. For most people this level isn’t immediately available, because their first reaction to a crisis is to contract. They become defensive, wary, and fearful. But if you allow yourself to expand, you will find that the following elements enter your awareness:
The need to struggle begins to diminish.
You start to let go.
More people connect with you. You allow them more input.
You approach decisions with confidence.
You meet fear realistically and it starts to lessen.
With clearer vision, you no longer feel confused and conflicted.
You can tell that you have reached this level of awareness when you no longer feel stuck: a process has begun. With greater expansion, unseen forces come to your aid. You move forward according to what you desire from your life.
Level 3: Pure Awareness
This is the level where no problems exist. Every challenge is a creative opportunity. You feel completely aligned with the forces of nature. What makes this possible is that awareness can expand without limits. Although it may seem that it takes long experience on the spiritual path to reach pure awareness, the truth is exactly the opposite. At every moment pure awareness is in contact with you, sending creative impulses. All that matters is how open you are to the answers being presented. When you are fully open, the following elements will be present:
There is no struggle.
Desires reach fulfillment spontaneously.
The next thing you want is the best thing that could happen. You benefit yourself and your surroundings.
The outer world reflects what is happening in your inner world.
You feel completely safe. You are at home in the universe.
You view yourself and the world with compassion and understanding.
To be completely established in pure awareness is enlightenment, a state of unity with everything in existence. Ultimately, every life is moving in that direction. Without attaining the final goal, you can tell that you are in contact with pure awareness if you feel truly yourself, in a state of peace and freedom.
Each of these levels brings its own kind of experience. This can be easily seen when there is a sharp contrast or a sudden change. Love at first sight takes a person without warning from contracted awareness to expanded awareness. Instead of relating in the normal social way, suddenly you see immense appeal, even perfection, in one other person. In creative work there is the “Aha!” experience. Instead of wrestling with a blocked imagination, suddenly the answer presents itself, fresh and new. No one doubts that such epiphanies exist. They can be life changing, as in the so- called peak experience, when reality is flooded with light and a revelation dawns. What people don’t see is that expanded awareness should be our normal state, not a moment of extraordinary difference.
Making it normal is the whole point of the spiritual life.
Listening to people tell their stories of problems, obstacles, failure, and frustration— an existence trapped in contracted awareness— one sees that reaching a new vision is critical. It is all too easy to get lost in particulars. The difficulties of facing each challenge are often overwhelming. No matter how intensely you feel your situation, which has its own unique difficulties, if you look to the right and left, you will see others who are just as caught up in their situations. Strip away the details, and what remains is a general cause of suffering: lack of awareness. By lack I’m not implying personal failure. Unless you are shown how to expand your awareness, you have no choice but to experience the state of contraction.
Just as the body flinches when faced with physical pain, the mind has a reflex that makes it draw back when faced with mental pain. Here again, a moment of sudden contrast makes it easy to experience what contraction feels like. Imagine yourself in any of the following situations:
You are a young mother who has taken your child to the playground. You chat for a moment with another mother, and when you turn around, you can’t see your child.
At work you are sitting at your computer when someone casually mentions that there are going to be layoffs, and by the way, the boss wants to see you.
You open your mailbox and find a letter from the Internal Revenue Service.
While driving you approach an intersection when, out of the blue, a car behind you swerves past your car and runs a red light.
You walk into a restaurant and see your spouse sitting with an attractive companion. They are leaning in toward each other, talking in low voices.
It doesn’t take much imagination to feel the sudden change of awareness that these situations provoke. Panic, anxiety, anger, and apprehension flood your mind; these are the result of brain changes as the lower brain takes precedent over the higher brain, triggering the release of adrenaline as part of an array of physical responses known as the stress response. Any feeling is both mental and physical. The brain gives a precise representation of what the mind is experiencing, drawing on infinite combinations of electrochemical signals coursing through one hundred billion neurons. A brain researcher can pinpoint with ever- increasing accuracy exactly those regions that produce such changes. What cannot be seen on an MRI is the mental event that incites all these changes, because the mind functions at the invisible level of awareness or consciousness. We can take these two terms as synonyms, but let’s explore them a little.
Spirituality deals with your state of awareness. It isn’t the same as medicine or psychotherapy. Medicine deals in the physical aspect where bodily changes occur. Psychotherapy deals in a specific difficulty, such as anxiety, depression, or actual mental illness. Spirituality confronts awareness directly; it aims to produce higher consciousness. In our society this is seen as much less real than the other ways of approaching problems. In times of trouble, people cope as best as they can with a swirling confusion of fear, anger, mood swings, and everyday struggle. It doesn’t even occur to them to pair the two words spiritual and solution in the same sentence. This points to a limited vision about what spirituality really is, and what it can do.
If spirituality can change your awareness, nothing is more practical.
Awareness isn’t passive. It leads directly to action (or inaction). The way that you perceive a problem will inevitably blend with how you try to solve the problem. We’ve all been in groups that are asked to accomplish a task, and when the discussion begins, each participant displays aspects of their awareness. Someone seizes the floor, demanding attention. Someone else hangs back silently. Certain voices are cautious and pessimistic, while other voices are the opposite. This play and display of attitudes, emotions, role- playing, and so on comes down to awareness. Every situation lends itself to expanding your awareness. The word expand doesn’t mean that awareness blows up like a balloon. Instead, we can break down awareness into quite specific areas. When you enter a situation, you respond through the following aspects of your awareness:
Once you change these aspects— even a few of them— a shift in consciousness occurs. As the first step to reaching a solution, it is critical to break down any problem until you reach the aspects in your awareness that are feeding the problem.
Perceptions: Every situation looks different to different people. Where I see disaster, you may see opportunity. Where you see loss, I may see the lifting of a burden. Perception isn’t fixed; it is highly personal. So the key question, when you approach the level of awareness, isn’t “How do things look?” but “How do things look to me?” Questioning your perception gives you distance from a problem, and with distance comes objectivity. But there is no such thing as total objectivity. We all see the world through tinted glasses, and if you mistake the view for reality, it’s just the tint pretending to be clear.
Beliefs: Because they hide beneath the surface, beliefs seem to play a passive role. We all know people who claim to be without prejudice— racial, religious, political, or personal— who act exactly like someone riddled with prejudice. It’s easy to repress your beliefs, but it’s just as easy not to recognize them. What psychologists call core beliefs can be the hardest to spot in yourself. In an earlier age, for example, it was a core belief that men were superior to women. The topic wasn’t even raised for discussion, much less doubt. But when women demanded the vote, and this grew into a broad, vocal feminist movement, men found that their core belief was exposed. How did they react? As if they had been attacked personally, because their beliefs were their identity. “This is me” sits very close in the mind to “this is what I believe.” When you react to a challenge by taking it too personally, with defensiveness, anger, and blind stubbornness, some core belief has usually been touched.
Assumptions: Because they shift according to the situation you find yourself in, assumptions are more flexible than beliefs. But they are just as unexamined. If a police cruiser signals you to pull off the road, don’t you assume that you have done something wrong and will wind up defending yourself? It is hard to be open- minded enough to allow that the police officer may offer something positive. That’s how assumptions work. They leap in to fill a gap of uncertainty. Social encounters are never empty. When you meet a friend for dinner, you bring assumptions about how the evening will go that are unlike the assumptions you bring to a blind date. As with beliefs, if you challenge a person’s assumptions, the outcome is likely to be volatile. Although our assumptions shift all the time, we usually don’t like to be told that they need to change.
Expectations: What you expect from other people is linked to desire or fear. Positive expectations are ruled by desire, in that you want something and expect it to come to you. We expect to be loved and cared for by our spouses. We expect to be paid for the work we do. Negative expectations are ruled by fear, as when people anticipate worst- case scenarios. Murphy’s Law, which says that if anything can go wrong, it will, provides a good example.
Because desire and fear lie close to the surface of the mind, your expectations are more active than your beliefs and assumptions. What you believe about your boss is one thing; being told that your salary has been cut is another. Depriving someone of what they expect directly challenges how they live.
Feelings: As much as we try to disguise them, our feelings lie on the surface; other people see them or sense them as soon as they meet us. Therefore we spend a lot of time fighting against feelings that we don’t want to have, or against feelings we feel ashamed of and judge negatively. For many people, simply to have a feeling is undesirable. They see themselves as exposed and vulnerable. Being emotional is equated with being out of control (which itself is an undesirable feeling). Being aware that you have feelings is a step toward greater awareness, and then there’s the next step, which can be much harder, of accepting your feelings. With acceptance comes responsibility.
Owning your own feelings, rather than blaming them on someone else, is the mark of a person who has moved from contracted to expanded awareness.
If you are able to examine your state of awareness, these five elements will emerge. When someone is truly self- aware, you can ask them a direct question about how they feel, what their assumptions are, what they expect from you, and how their core beliefs are being affected. In response you won’t get a defensive reaction. You’ll be told the truth. Healthy as that sounds, why is it spiritual? Self- awareness isn’t the same as praying, believing in miracles, or seeking God’s favor. The vision I’ve sketched in is spiritual because of the third level of awareness, which I’ve labeled pure awareness.
This is the level that religious believers know as the soul or spirit. When you base your life on the reality of the soul, you hold spiritual beliefs. When you go further and take the level of the soul to be the basis of life— the very ground of existence— then spirituality becomes an active principle. The soul is awakened. In reality the soul never sleeps, because pure awareness infuses every thought, feeling, and action. We may disguise this fact from ourselves. One symptom of contracted awareness, in fact, is a complete denial of “higher” reality. This denial is based not on willful blindness but on the absence of experience. A mind blocked by fear, anxiety, anger, resentment, or suffering of any kind isn’t able to experience expanded awareness, much less pure awareness.
If the mind worked like a machine, it wouldn’t be able to recover from the state of suffering. Like gears worn down by friction, our thoughts would get worse and worse until the day arrived when suffering was completely victorious.
For countless people life feels just like that. But the potential to heal is never worn away completely; change and transformation are your birthright, guaranteed not by God, faith, or salvation, but by the indestructible basis of life, which is pure awareness. To be alive is to be caught up in constant change. When we feel stuck, our cells are still processing the basic materials of life continually.
Feelings of numbness and depression can make life seem to stop. So can sudden loss and failure. Yet no matter how severe the shock or how stubborn the obstacle, the ground state of existence isn’t affected, much less damaged.
In the following pages you will encounter people who feel stuck, numb, frustrated, and stymied. Their stories seem to be unique, as viewed by each of them, but the way forward isn’t unique. It consists of addressing their state of awareness. What refuses to move must be shown how to move. That’s another reason why the solutions being offered are spiritual: they first involve seeing, waking up, becoming open to new perceptions. The most practical way to reach a solution is spiritually, because you can only change what you first are able to see. No enemy is more insidious than the one you are blind to.
We live in a secular age, and so the view of life I’ve just outlined is far from the norm. In fact, it’s almost the opposite, because although everyone would agree that buildings must have blueprints, life doesn’t. Life is viewed as a series of unpredictable events that we struggle to control. Who will be foreclosed on or lose their job? Which house hold will be struck with accidents, addiction, divorce? There is seemingly no rationale behind these events. Stuff happens. Obstacles arise of their own accord, or simply by accident. Each of us justifies our contracted awareness by accepting such beliefs, and they run deep. Human nature, we tell ourselves, is filled with negative drives, such as selfishness, aggression, and jealousy. At best we are in partial control of these drives as they rise up inside us. We have no control at all over the negativity in others, and so each day presents us with a struggle against random chance and against people who are out to get what they want, no matter that it causes problems, or even loss, for us. As a beginning to expanded awareness, you need to challenge this worldview even if it is the social norm. Normal isn’t the same as true.
The truth is that each of us is entangled in the world we call real. Mind isn’t a ghost. It is embedded in the whole situation you find yourself in. To see how that works, first abolish the separation between a thought, the brain cells the thought stimulates, the body’s reaction as it receives messages from the brain, and the activity you decide to pursue. All are part of the same continuous process. Even among geneticists, who for decades preached that genes determined almost every aspect of life, there is a new catchphrase: genes are not nouns, they are verbs. Dynamism is universal.
You aren’t floating in a mindless environment, either. Your surroundings are being affected by what you say and do. The words “I love you” have an entirely different effect on others than the words “I hate you.” An entire society is galvanized by the words “the enemy is attacking.” At the most expanded level, the whole planet is influenced by the global exchange of information; you are participating in the global mind by sending an e-mail or joining a social network. What you eat on the run in a fast- food restaurant has implications for the whole biosphere, as environmentalists are at pains to show us.
Spirituality has always begun with wholeness. Lost in a world of specifics, we forget that isolation is a myth. Your life at this moment is an entangled process that involves thoughts, feelings, brain chemicals, the body’s responses, information, social interactions, relationships, and the ecology. So when you speak and act, you are causing a ripple that is felt in the flow of life. Yet spirituality goes beyond describing you; it also prescribes the most beneficial way to affect the flow of life.
Because pure awareness lies at the basis of everything, the most powerful way to change your life is to begin with your awareness. When your consciousness changes, your situation will change. Every situation is both visible and invisible. The visible part is what most people fight against,
because it’s “out there,” accessible to the five senses. They are loath to confront the invisible aspect of their situation, because it is “in here” where unseen dangers and fears lurk. In the spiritual vision of life, “in here” and “out there” are entangled with countless threads; the fabric of existence is woven from them.
Two starkly contrasting visions are competing, then, one based on materialism, randomness, and externals; the other based on consciousness, purpose, and the union of inner and outer. Before you can find a solution to the challenge that faces you today, right this minute, you must choose at a deeper level which vision of life you are following. The spiritual view leads to spiritual solutions. The nonspiritual view leads to a host of other solutions. Clearly this is a critical choice because, whether you realize it or not, your life is unfolding according to the choices you have made unconsciously, dictated by your level of awareness.
This sketch of what a spiritual solution can achieve will sound very foreign to many people, however. Most of us avoid confronting ourselves; we are unable to define a vision. Instead, we meet life as it comes, coping as best we can, relying on mistakes from the past, advice from friends and family, and hope. We wind up giving in when we must and clutching at what we think we want. So what would it take to adopt a spiritual vision of your own life? In this book we won’t be following the path of conventional religion. Prayer and faith, while not central to the vision that needs to unfold, aren’t excluded, however. If you are religious and find comfort and help by turning to God, you are entitled to your version of a spiritual life. But here we will be consulting a much vaster tradition than any of the world’s religions, a tradition that embodies the practical wisdom of sages and seers, in both East and West, who have looked deeply at the human condition.
If there is one piece of practical wisdom that the following chapters are about, it is this: Life is constantly recycling itself and evolving at the same time. This must be true of your own life, then. When you can see that all your struggles and frustrations have kept you from joining the flow of evolution, you have the best reason to stop struggling. I am inspired by a famous Indian sage who taught that life is like a river fl owing between the two banks of pain and suffering. Everything runs perfectly when we stay in the river, but we insist on grasping at pain and suffering as we pass them, as if the banks offer us safety and shelter.
Life flows from within itself, and seizing on any kind of rigid or fixed position is contrary to life. The more you let go, the more your true self can express its desire to evolve. Once the process is under way, everything changes. Inner and outer worlds reflect each other without confusion or conflict. Because solutions now arise from the level of the soul, they meet no resistance. All your desires lead to the result that is best for you and your surroundings. In the end, happiness is based on reality, and nothing is more real than change and evolution. It is with the hope that everyone can find a way to leap into the river that this book was written.
Every problem is open to a spiritual solution. The solution is found by expanding your awareness, moving beyond the limited vision of the problem. The process begins by recognizing what kind of awareness you are working from, because for every challenge in life there are three levels of awareness.
Level 1: Contracted awareness
This is the level of problems, obstacles, and struggle. Answers are limited. Fear contributes to a sense of confusion and conflict. Efforts to reach a solution meet with frustration. You keep doing more of what didn’t work in the first place. If you remain at this level, you will be frustrated and exhausted.
Level 2: Expanded awareness
This is the level where solutions begin to appear. There is less struggle. Obstacles are easier to overcome. Your vision extends beyond the conflict, giving you more clarity. Negative energies are confronted realistically. With greater expansion, unseen forces come to your aid. You move forward according to what you desire from your life.
Level 3: Pure awareness
This is the level where no problems exist. Every challenge is a creative opportunity. You feel completely aligned with the forces of nature. Inner and outer worlds reflect each other without confusion or conflict. Because solutions arise from the level of the true self, they meet no resistance. All your desires lead to the result that is best for you and your surroundings. As you move from Level 1 to Level 3, life’s challenges become what they are meant to be: a step closer to your true self.
Excerpted from Spiritual Solutions: Answers to Life’s Greatest Challenges Copyright @ 2012 by Deepak Chopra. Reprinted by Permission of Harmony, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.