According to Abhinavagupta, a master of the Tantrik lineages, there are three skilful means to liberation, or Upāya, of which one is śāmbhava upāya.
He first outlined this framework in Tantrāloka around 10 centuries ago.
The first is the Embodied Means (ānava upāya), which focuses on practices that use the body, breath and imagination, focusing on the objects of awareness. Eventually, this evolves into the Empowered Means (śakta upāya) which focuses on the refinement of mental constructs defining the nature of reality. This then gives rise to the Divine Means (śāmbhava upāya) which is a spontaneous orientation toward liberation from moment to moment arising from the will.
What does that mean? It means that the practitioner is able to intuitively sense how to respond to stimuli arising in the moment in a way that leads into liberation rather than bondage.
Abhinavagupta allues to this when he says:
It is the Power of Action that is the sole cause of both bondage and liberation. || 145Abhinavagupta, translation Christopher Wallis
It’s the ability to orientate to awareness of what’s unfolding (a capacity that is trained through the practices of the ānava upāya) and a relaxing of identification with thoughts (a capacity trainee through śakta upāya) that allows an intuitive response in the moment that leads into liberation rather than bondage.
Still confused? Here’s a concrete example of śāmbhava upāya in action.
Yesterday I read a blog post from someone who attended Earth Beat, a Festival here in New Zealand that I had recently attended as a presenter. I like reading articles about Festivals I’ve attended – it’s fascinating to hear how other people have experienced the same event.
As it turned it, this particular blog post was a gift to read. The author, James McLean of Self-Sovereignty Faith, had attended a bunch of workshops, including mine. He wrote:
“Not all timetabled sessions were profound. In keeping with the intensifying polarization of Earth’s sub-field’s, some were extra cliched, dogmatic and devolutionary. One presenter talked about the ‘three stages of awakening’ in parroted memes that made enlightenment sound like the end product of a cake recipe.”James McLean
Wait – that was me!
Cue golden opportunity and orientation to curiosity. How would this feel in my body? What would be revealed?
I was aware of a heat, and a sensation of something burning off. There was also a faint taint of disappointment that there was still a reaction indicating an aspect of “taking it personally”, and a noticing of all those layers, before a settling back into awareness.
Out of that awareness arose curiosity and wonder.
From that space, I left a comment, thanking the author for sharing his experience and saying:
“If my presentation made awakening as accessible as making a cake… I would be delighted. As they say, the proof is always in the pudding. Or, as a teacher, the proof is in the students.”
For me, my reaction to the article revealed a few things. One, of śāmbhava upāya in action – immediate orientation to awareness plus dis-identification with any arising thoughts or feelings. I knew this was a moment to see the false self and be aware of it. As soon as there is awareness of the false self, there’s an element of burning through it.
The disappointment I felt – that’s the false self right there. The one who wants to attain or experience something – in this case total indifference to criticism or praise.
Yet holding that with loving-awareness or radical self-acceptance was also present. The aspect that would have once judged or not liked what was arising has softened.
It was such a small moment. Perhaps 60 or 120 seconds in time. And yet, such moments are so valuable in the awakening and liberation process because they reveal truth.
The truth is, further, as Jed McKenna would say.
Later, when I shared the blog post with my Beloved, he remarked;
“That is a hallmark of the style of your teaching – it’s often A B C, like making a cake.”
And then he asked me:
“What else could you have done to connect with or open up this person?”
It was a question I had asked myself after the presentation, only in different language.
I’d walked away pondering; ‘Did I serve those people the best I could?’ Because I wasn’t sure that I had.
Later, throughout the Festival, various people came up to me and shared the insights and realisations they’d had during the presentation on the phases of awakening.
No one came up and told me why they didn’t like it, or why it was shit.
Which makes sense – it takes more courage to offer criticism in person than praise.
That can then skew my perception of the presentation, because all I’m hearing is the ‘good things’.
It’s another reason why James’ post was such a gift. Not only did it give me an opportunity to feel and burn through a layer of attachment or identification, but it also made me ponder what’s needed to more deeply connect with people as a teacher.
When my Beloved asked that question, I shrugged and responded:
‘I’m not here to convert, persuade or convince anyone of anything. If someone’s interested in awakening, I’m delighted to support that process. If they’re not, or they don’t trust my approach, then it doesn’t really matter.’
Criticism is often more valuable than praise. And being indifferent to either – genuinely indifferent – is the hallmark I’m interested in.
Yesterday, there wasn’t total indifference. But the sensation I experienced in my body didn’t generate any thoughts. The immediate orientation to awareness prevented that from happening – that’s śāmbhava upāya in action. There was no identification with the unfolding, just awareness and curioisty.
Yet, as its name implies – śāmbhava upāya is the divine means, or the intuitive means – you can’t “do” this method.
What you can do is cultivate the likelihood that it will arise. Learn how to orientate to awareness. This will happen by grace initially, through practice. But eventually, it’s possible to choose to orientate to awareness simply by remembering to do so. Once that ability kicks in, use it! Dedicate yourself to becoming awareness (the first phase of awakening in one particular framework).
Second, if you’re already doing ānava upāya practices, start also doing śakta upāya practices. These are critical for dissolving the mental constructs or conditioning you have about reality, and about yourself. Once this process kicks in, it becomes clear that thoughts are never true, and are simply tools. This lends itself to an orientation to the moment of awareness and curiosity. Combine that with a burning to desire to awaken and liberate. This orientation plus desire will eventually lead to the spontaneous arising of śāmbhava upāya.