Before you offer them advice on how to cope with the anxiety causing uncertainty or wax eloquent on “how much you know about the pandemic,” can you acknowledge their pain that they are feeling RIGHT NOW by being authentic about your pain? If any human says they are concern-free at this time on the planet, then they are being non-authentic. In threatening times such as these, our SHARED HUMANITY can become the best medicine.
As a part of my series about the the things we can do to develop serenity and support each other during anxious times, I had the pleasure of interviewing Acharya Shunya
Acharya Shunya is a spiritually awake internationally renowned and awarded spiritual teacher and scholar of nondual wisdom (Advaita) and a classically-trained master of Yoga and Ayurveda. The first female head of her 2000-year old Indian spiritual lineage, she has dedicated her life to empowering health and elevating consciousness worldwide. She is president of The Awakened Self Foundation with its headquarters in northern California, and bestselling author of Ayurveda Lifestyle Wisdom (Sounds True, 2017). Her latest book Sovereign Self , Claim Your Inner Joy and Freedom with the empowering wisdom of the Vedas, Bhagavad Gita and Upanishads (Sounds True, 2020) is being claimed by experts as a masterpiece on eastern psychology and spirituality, now available for preorder.
Acharya Shunya is a sought-after speaker, delivering keynote addresses to audiences that include the National Ayurveda Medical Association, University of California, Berkeley, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Stanford University, Kriplau, Sedona Yoga Festival and 1440 Multiversity. She serves as an advisor to the Indian Government in matters pertaining to global integration and cultivation of Ayurveda and Yoga.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
The word ‘lineage” sounds mystical, but the idea is common enough in India, where I come from. For centuries, sacred wisdom is carefully passed on from master to disciple inside a lineage or a chain of teachers often connected by spiritual beliefs and even blood lines.
I had a stroke of karma! I was born inside a 2000-year-old highly respected family or lineage of spiritual teachers in India. My paternal ancestors are renowned spiritual teachers in India. And now I am the first female head of this lineage!
It is important to note that India is still a pretty patriarchal culture in pockets. Fortunately, the nondual tradition I come from and the family I was born into was packed with progressive minded mystics and healers, both men and women, who knew how to lead their lives with inner sovereignty.
So, from a young age, alongside regular schooling and climbing mango trees (my favorite pastime as a kid), I was groomed to become a healer, practitioner and teacher by my paternal grandfather in Yoga and Ayurveda. Ayurveda is the system of health and healing associated with Yoga. I learned these systems alongside non-dual teachings coming out of India.
Today, through my internationally bestselling books, the retreats I lead worldwide, and through The Awakened Self Foundation that I founded, I am told I am transforming the lives of thousands of seekers across the globe.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
My entire life is an interesting story because I am the lead player in my own life, not a bit player. People look for interesting things to happen to them through marriage or career paths. I make things happen in my life by making conscious choices and daring to place myself in interesting yet vulnerable spaces to inhabit emotionally, intellectually and spiritually.
Yes, I feel I am actively living the life I was always meant to live. That is never boring, even for one instant. I do this by leading a deliberate life. Atmavaan is the Sanskrit word for mindfulness. It means do not be carried away by external circumstances and other people’s reactions and assumptions. It means to not lead a mechanical life and do things just because others are doing them. This can be mechanically going through education, getting employed, getting married, raising children. Instead, let your life be a deliberate one.
What is your life purpose? What are your gifts? What is your purpose as a soul? Such contemplation and inner sojourns make my life journey as a spiritual teacher, author, wife and mom. A super interesting story for sure!
What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?
Believing we are made complete by what is “out there,” an author thinks that without writing daily and getting books published on a regular basis, to be read by more and more people, his life is meaningless. A painter obsessed with painting, which is her muse and inspiration (understandably so), thinks that without her art and its appreciators, life is meaningless. A family-oriented person thinks, without my happy family dream come true, my life is meaningless.
As for my spiritual colleagues this is what I can say. Nowadays, optics seem to matter a lot. But we should be careful in making that our internal frame of reference. Otherwise we may think, unless we have thousands of social media followers or are speaking at the most prestigious spiritual conference, I am a nobody. This inner self abandonment causes stress and burnout in spiritual folks. Instead of enjoying their spiritual blossoming, they may burn out chasing morsels of recognition.
And this is where I affirm that our inner life is meaningful. Period.
I write in my book Sovereign Self, “Nothing can make or give meaning to your life; you, who are pure existence, give life to everything else. It is you who lend meaning to everything through your thoughts. If you were to change your thoughts right now, you could also change that meaning.”
I want to remind spiritual colleagues (and all spiritual seekers) that their true Self is a momentous, blissful, and unimaginably powerful existence. Your life is meaningful, worthwhile, and supremely valuable unto itself.
You add meaning to your life. Nothing in your life “adds” meaning to your life because in your essence, you are pure existence. Let the whole world come to you; your life is meaningful. Let the whole world go away from you; your life is meaningful. Therefore, do not connect the purpose, meaning, or value of your life to anything else at all.
Our minds must be trained with these kinds of contemplation. We must know without an iota of doubt that “my life is meaningful because of who I am. Period.”
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
I would advise identifying core spiritual values to create an optimal work culture. We call these values in Indian spirituality. “Dharma.” In my own life, I have founded and run successful spiritual organizations built around dharma values.
Dharma values make humans not only prosperous but kind and accommodative of each other’s humanity. Adopt dharma values like non-violence (Ahmisa) in communication, truth (Satyam) in straightforward conversation, compassion (Karuna) and doing our best (Vareniyam). These can make spiritually aware business communities thrive.
Another cardinal value I uphold is nonduality (Adwaita), which translates as ONENESS. Therefore, organizations I build are intentional spaces, where people of every gender, culture and religion feel safe, respected, included, and seen as souls not just “bodies with different colored skins.” An underlying unity supports the presence of diversity. Everyone feels like they belong to one soul-family.
To me, the community in any spiritual business is not simply a database of names corresponding with tasks and a salary. Each employee is a living, breathing, feeling human. I provide resources that help my employees better understand themselves, develop successful professional and personal relationships, and enhance personal management skills.
If we can assist our employees in integrating their spiritual and emotional growth with job performance, the organization benefits too.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
I have shared this story in my new book Sovereign Self (page 325) in a chapter in which I discuss the difference between wielding soul- power versus egoic power. This topic is important to me because I cannot rely on my ego alone to be who I am today. My ego can get irrationally frightened or angry, just like everyone else’s. But once I recognized I do have access to another kind of power (one that belongs to who I am beyond my ego: a Soul), I feel almost invincible. I am going to share this story verbatim, so you can enjoy it too:
“In a village in ancient India lived a snake that was a bit bad-tempered. He would bite for no reason. Once, a saint was passing by and gave some discourses. The snake’s mind was highly moved, so he decided to change his nature and not bite people anymore. He decided to practice unconditional ahmisa, nonviolence.
The next time the saint went by the same village, he found the snake in a precarious physical condition; small children had thrown stones at him, and people and even other animals, like the monkeys, had trampled all over him.
“What happened to you?” the saint asked the snake.
“After your discourse, I decided to not bite anyone,” replied the snake.
“That’s nice that you’ve decided to stop biting people for no reason, but did I tell you to stop hissing and keeping others from biting you? Why did you choose to become so powerless that you could not even defend yourself?” the saint questioned.
This story beautifully illustrates how we must have our personal power in place, always. That is how we can assert healthy boundaries in relationships. We do not to have be offensive, but we can have boundaries in self-defense against the sleepwalkers whom we are bound to meet sooner or later.
To live in accordance with our unique nature, we need personal power. We must develop familiarity with our soul power, learn to live from our power, and ultimately act from this power. It is ours, and we must accept it and embrace it. That is why I call true power atmashakti, a word derived from two Sanskrit words: “atma” (“soul ”) and “shakti” (“power”).
The snake who forgot to hiss in self-defense forgot his soul power in trying to be overly “nice.” But soul power, unlike egoic power, is beyond good and bad. It is our unquestionable power of Self to lead our life with physical and emotional safety: to act as sovereign of our inner realm.
Every violation of our personal boundary is asking us to clarify our relationship with our own personal power. If you are aware of your soul’s power, then people around you will sense your power too and automatically come to respect your boundaries. They will stop seeing you as less important than themselves, and therefore stop disrespecting or threatening you.
Soul power is like that. It is invisible, but it can be sensed from miles away. When you see a lightning storm, do you dare go into it? No. You admire it from a distance. In the same way, when you are established in your soul power, people will sense that you have power. You don’t have to be angry or loud or hold up your fist. You could be relaxed and silent, and still be the most powerful person in the room.
Soul power makes you powerful whether you have a college degree or not, the right career or not, a lover, partner, or spouse or not! I ask you to act powerfully whether you are young and strong or dealing with wrinkles and disease by becoming familiar with soul power.
You can use your advanced mind to draw upon its great spiritual strength, knowledge, skills, and creativity. And you can wield this power in ethical ways, not biting others, but still able to hiss in self-defense.”
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Many people have become anxious just from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have only heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to develop serenity during such uncertain times? Can you please share a story or example for each.
Here are five interconnected suggestions I give my students regarding anxiety, especially when engendered from the pandemic:
- The next time you find yourself getting anxious, don’t fight that anxiety. Don’t wish it to go away by thinking it is a bad thing. Instead choose to actively embrace its presence. Anxiety is really your inner being trying to get your attention — your inner self is knocking at your door. Choose to observe it.
- Simply breathe and feel the sensation of anxiety in your chest and hollow of your stomach. What does that sensation feel like? When you allow yourself to feel what you are feeling (even if it is uncomfortable) you come back to authentic relationship with all parts of yourself. Afterall to feel some fear from uncertainty is not unnatural but totally natural. It’s when we push that fear away and wear masks of false bravado that anxiety becomes unbearable!
- Often underlying that anxiety is helplessness, anger and even sheer rage at people, destiny, god, karma (and even the virus). I recommend you take a few moments in private to viscerally feel that rage; even release some angry noises and sounds or tears. This does not have to be a rational process. It has to be truly emotional and experiential and raw.
- Once you have released the underlying rage or sorrow, or rather, not banished those uncomfortable feelings any longer from your conscious mind, you shall find that anxiety has faded away. It is like the heavy clouds have dissipated and the inner sun is shining, after all.
Nowadays, I don’t even allow the build-up of suppressed feelings. Every day, several times a day, I stop what I doing to check in. I put my hands on my heart and talk to myself in soothing tones. I take account of my feelings, all of them, even the rage and grief. Then, within moments I feel restored. Remember anxiety is your friend, and it is normal to feel sorrow and rage in these times.
Thus, I invite my readers and students to be WHOLE HUMANS and not part humans. Wholeness means the willingness to face our own darkness and console our feelings like an attentive caring mother would console a weeping raging, screaming child. She would hug the child and say softly, “I am here for you.” She would not lock the child in the (subconscious) basement where the screams can’t be heard (but the anxiety felt). So next time you feel anxious and terrified, go back to the basement, and allow your banished feelings of fear and rage some time to connect with you and thereby become organically resolved.
From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?
First, never dismiss another’s fears and anxiety just because you are cruising through your own life. Each person’s trajectory with what is going on is different.
Secondly, if the people around you who are anxious wish to talk to you, you can offer them a true gift by listening with all your heart. Can you make eye contact while listening? If you live with them, and social distancing is not a requirement, you could also touch them in a way that enhances their sense of safety and wellbeing. (No need to suffocate, just hold your hand out in genuine care.)
Thirdly,before you offer them advice on how to cope with the anxiety causing uncertainty or wax eloquent on “how much you know about the pandemic,” can you acknowledge their pain that they are feeling RIGHT NOW by being authentic about your pain? If any human says they are concern-free at this time on the planet, then they are being non-authentic. In threatening times such as these, our SHARED HUMANITY can become the best medicine.
Fourthly, if they are open to it, you can share with them ways you cope with your anxiety and fears. I suggest you not quote magazine articles and scientific evidence you have been gathering but share what has actually helped you in your life, even if in a small way, like deep breathing perhaps. That would be significantly more helpful than choking the person with information, data and lists.
Fifthly and most importantly, it is what you do not say but feel in your heart that will make the biggest impact. Our intention is more powerful than our communicated speech. If you hold the intention for that person to benefit from your presence, even if what you say is minimal, then that is what counts.
What are the best resources you would suggest to a person who is feeling anxious?
I suggest cultivating INNER RESOURCES: activated by meditating, journaling, yoga, exercise, walking in nature, gardening, and contemplating on the teachings of spiritual teachers like myself, who show us ways to our sovereign inner power. Also, selflessly serving those in need and in greater threat than ourselves is also a spiritual use of our time. It will leave us grateful and feeling blessed to be of service.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
I remember reading this: Never dim your light to meet another’s dimmed light.This confirmed everything I was already working on. Nowadays I remember to brighten my light and become radiant like my INNER SUN especially when I walk into a room full of critics and complainers.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would support a movement of spiritual self-awareness beyond the body and the mind. It means not leading that mechanical life. Let your life be a deliberate one. What is your life purpose? Why were you born? Do you know who you really are?
So, in short, I would like to start a movement on expanding our net quotient of spiritual awareness beyond participating in organized religion. Yes, we need courage to explore our own true potential and courage to express our core truth and this courage can come from Self-Awareness. We must remember that I am the Soul, not the role I am currently playing.
What is the best way our readers can follow you online?
My Website: www.AwakenedSelf.com or my social media, @AcharyaShunya on all platforms.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!