Spiritual Awakening

Spiritual awakening is the event in which an individual realizes that their constructed notion of themselves is purely a mental construct. The experience sometimes resembles waking from a dream — hence the name, “awakening.” However, it is not the experience itself that defines awakening. The distinguishing characteristic of awakening is the transformation in the way the mind subsequently interprets experience.


Historical evidence supports the thesis that awakening was known in South Asia in the first millennium B.C. In the Chāndogyopaniṣad, which may date from as early as the eighth century B.C., Uddalaka says to his son Śvetaketu, Tat tvam asi, “That thou art” (6.8.7). In the Doṇasutta, narrating events around the sixth century B.C., Siddhattha Gotama explicitly refers to himself as a buddha, “one who has awakened” (PTS A ii.39). In the early Buddhist texts (e.g. the Pārāyanavagga of the Suttanipāta, PTS Sn 151 et seq.) a common metaphor for the journey to nibbāna is crossing a river from the near shore to the far shore. A “stream-enterer” is one who has taken the first step into the river. A distinguishing characteristic of a stream-enterer is that they no longer believe in a solid and permanent self (e.g. the Sotapattisaṃyutta of the Saṃyuttanikāya, the “Stream-Entry Collection,” PTS S v.342et seq.). Spiritual awakening can therefore be equated with stream-entry.


Human psychological development is multi-axial. Before the age of 3–6 months, an infant will lose interest in an object as soon as it is out of sight. After this age, the infant “knows” the object is there, even if it is not visible. This stage is called “object permanence.” Object permanence implies that the child now has a solid mental representation of the object in its mind. Some months after object permanence, as well as showing an interest in an object that has disappeared from sight, the infant will grasp at attractive objects. The child is no longer simply experiencing the world; it is actively 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. In the course of time, it learns to use the word “I” as a symbol for the increasingly solid concept of self.

At puberty, the self-concept hardens from one who simply experiences the world into one who is an autonomous agent or doer.

Throughout this time, the defense mechanisms are developing. The defense mechanisms serve to ameliorate or dismiss uncomfortable feelings. They are thought to begin in infancy as conditioned physiological responses. The “I” concept plays a vital part in locking the defense mechanisms in place. By the completion of adolescence, the self-concept is fully established, and the individual has no memory of its construction nor of the characteristics of experience without a self-concept.

Spiritual awakening may then occur at any stage from young adulthood through to old age.

Precipitating Factors

The mechanism and precipitating factors of spiritual awakening are not fully understood. There are instance of individuals awakening without any apparent precipitating factors. Nevertheless, some or all of the following may immediately precede awakening:


Transitional Effects

After the self-construct is seen to be a construct, the cognitive structures rearrange themselves to interpret experience without the notion of a self. There is a great deal of individual variation in experiences during this transition. Some individuals experience a rapid and almost symptomless transition. Others may experience unusual perceptual or cognitive effects while the rearrangement is taking place. Symptoms may include euphoria; vivid perceptions; a reduced need for sleep; and the urge to change diet or lifestyle. Transitional effects may last anything from a few days to a few months.

Some people who awaken experience the psychological and physiological symptoms known collectively as kuṇḍalinī syndrome. It is not well understood why some individuals experience this while others do not. One theory has it that kuṇḍalinī syndrome is characteristic of awakenings accompanied by unresolved psychological conflicts.

Enduring Effects

The distinguishing enduring effect of spiritual awakening is disidentification with the personality, which was formerly believed to be the self. Personality-habits, while they persist to some extent after awakening, are often greatly attenuated. In particular, the defense mechanisms are largely dissolved.