Hello and welcome.
Many people think of spiritual awakening as something exotic or mysterious. On this website, I’ll show you that it is in fact an ordinary developmental stage.
Let’s begin by reviewing human developmental psychology from infancy onward.
Before the age of 3–6 months, an infant will lose interest in an object as soon as it’s out of sight. After this age, the infant “knows” the object is there, even if it’s not visible. This stage is called “object permanence.” It wasn’t recognized until Jean Piaget discovered it in the twentieth century.
Object permanence implies that the child now has a mental representation of the object in its mind. Before object permanence, there were no solid and persistent representations in the infant’s mind. That means not just no solid self — it means nothing solid at all.
Some months after object permanence, as well as showing an interest in an object that has disappeared from sight, the infant starts to grasp at attractive objects. The child is no longer simply experiencing the world; it is attempting to manipulate that experience.
Around the age of eighteen months, a toddler will pass the “rouge test.” Here, a smudge of rouge is stealthily applied to the child’s nose. The child, seeing itself in a mirror, wipes the smudge from its nose. The conclusion is that a rudimentary notion of self now exists.
Soon after this, language develops. The child’s mind can now represent objects by words. A word is a symbol for the object. And, in the course of time, it learns to use the word “I” as a sign for the increasingly solid concept of self.
At puberty, the “I” concept hardens. In adolescence, the self-concept changes from one who simply experiences the world into one who is an autonomous agent or doer.
For adults, this notion of “I” as a doer has become so ingrained that they forget they ever experienced the world otherwise.
At the same time as the ego is developing, the mind is forming habits. Our reaction to one early situation becomes the way we react to all similar situations. The strivings of the past are superimposed on the present.
One particular kind of habit is particularly constricting. These are the defense mechanisms. We discover that we can mask our feelings by producing thoughts in our mind. They feel more pleasant than the uncomfortable feelings they muffle.
This is the ordinary situation of an adult before awakening. We live in a world where the constructed “I” character is continually fighting its feelings and acting out the battles of the past. Of course, we are unaware that we live in this mind-constructed world.
Miraculously, it is possible to see through the fabrications that have built up over so many years. This direct seeing is what spiritual awakening is.
Some simple exercises will point you in the right direction. To do these exercises, you’ll need to be able to distinguish between experience and words. Experience is one thing; words are another.
The first exercise is to study the relationship between thoughts and the “I” sense. Sit down. You can have your eyes open or eyes closed, as you prefer. Sit long enough to allow yourself to see the way thoughts bubble up. Notice that the bubbling up happens before the felt sense of “I” springs up to own the thought. Watch the whole process of the thought getting sucked into the “I” sense. Even if the thought includes the word “I,” the word appears first and the felt sense of “I” appears second.
With some practice, you’ll be able to see that thoughts arise on their own. Only after they’ve arisen does the “I” sense appear and take ownership of them. Neither the word “I” nor the felt sense of “I” made a particular thought appear at a particular moment. The whole sequence is happening by itself.
For the second exercise, watch your mind as you go about your day and interact with sensory experiences and other people. See if you can simultaneously focus on the arising of each “I” thought. Now pay particular attention to this point: What were you feeling immediately before the “I” thought arose?
This exercise requires stronger powers of observation. If you practice often enough, you should be able to see your defense mechanisms in action. “I” thoughts arise in reaction to feelings. They seek either to perpetuate, or to overcome, a particular feeling. Notice how often “I” thoughts serve as defense mechanisms. The mind is seeking to push away uncomfortable feelings and experience something more pleasurable instead. Notice that the mental fabrication is more pleasant than the feeling it attempts to conceal.
To awaken is realize the total non-ownership of this process. The “I” is seen to be not the controller of events but a product of events. It has no substantial existence of its own.
Notice also the ways in which these exercises differ from how the ordinary mind works:
- In ordinary consciousness, the mind is directed toward the outside world. In the exercises, the object of attention is experience itself.
- In ordinary consciousness, the mind tells stories. In the exercises, the goal is not telling new stories but direct seeing.
- Ordinary consciousness is volitional. In the exercises, the goal is to see experience as it is rather than to manipulate experience.
The essential point of the exercises can be summed up in one simple instruction: “Watch your mind.” This is what leads to deconditioning, the extinction of conditioned reactions. This is what frees you from your mental habits.
Given that the goal is also to dissolve the defense mechanisms, we can add a second simple instruction: “Feel your feelings.” As well as knowing them in your mind, feel them in your body.
If you follow these two instructions, you will prepare the ground to receive the “pearl of great price” (Matthew 13:46), that for which it is worth letting go of everything else.