Derek: If you’re wondering what spiritual awakening is all about, here’s the scoop.
We can situate spiritual awakening by saying that it’s a beginning — the beginning of a new way of being. And we can give the flavor of spiritual awakening by saying that this way of being is characterized by freedom in the here-and-now.
Spiritual awakening is waking up from the dream of a separate self. The person you imagine yourself to be is not who you are. In fact, there is no “you” to be anything at all.
Most people live in a world constructed by their thoughts. The “I” or ego acts as the center of this constructed world. This perspective forms a filter through which reality is perceived. Forces within the mind — the defense mechanisms and conditioned habits — are continually constricting awareness.
This is not the only way of constructing reality. Some people awaken from this way of seeing. This is spiritual awakening.
Spiritual awakening is not a philosophy. It can’t be brought about by describing the end results. And there are no step-by-step instructions that guarantee awakening.
Spiritual awakening is about discovering what is already true. What is already true needs no practice. A spiritual practice can only prepare the ground, clearing out wrong ideas rather than adding right ones. Practices conducive to awakening require the observation of experience as it already is. Sitting still for long periods of time, being alert, is the king of practices.
The moment of awakening is often filled with unusual experiences. These aren’t significant in themselves, even though they can be strange and colorful and exotic. It’s the transformation of perspective afterward that counts. Awakenings can be followed by a period of bliss and optimism. If you arrive at this kind of episode, it’s important not to make any major life-decisions during the bliss phase. The mind isn’t yet stable.
After awakening, life appears to be a three-act play. Awakening is the end of Act One. What happens after awakening is a period in which residual selfing continues to briefly arise. A very, very few people get to the end of Act Two, which is full enlightenment, or the end of all traces of selfing. So the period after full enlightenment you can think of as Act Three of life.
In the oldest parts of the Pali canon, the process is compared with crossing a river. An ordinary person is on the near shore. An enlightened person is on the far shore. Awakening is the point of stepping into the river. In the ancient texts, this is called “stream entry,” and one who steps in the river is a “stream enterer.”
At the same time, with spiritual awakening it becomes apparent that there’s another way of seeing things. From the point of view of eternal life, nothing really changes with awakening. Before awakening: chop wood, carry water. After awakening: chop wood, carry water.
Nome: In my own case, I was driving along in my car, minding my own business, when the thought “I bet that when a person awakens, everything in the world disappears” crossed my mind, as I stopped at a red light.
In the next second it was “me” that disappeared (someone appears to have a great sense of humor!). I mean this literally. My body disappeared. “I” could still see the steering wheel (now minus hands) and the road in front of me, but my sense of “I” moved out through the windshield, and I heard, “You are just a thought.”
It — meaning “I” — continued to move outward, until it just vanished into nothingness. And I mean nothingness (like gone, gone, gone, dead, dead, dead, nowhere, nothing!).
At what seemed to be the same time, the thought appeared that if I had to tell someone where I had gone, it would be exactly how I said it above: nowhere, nothing, non-existence, gone, gone, gone. But how come at the same time I could think this thought? What was thinking, if “I” was not there any more?
I then was back in my car (although part of me didn’t feel like it had left), and the first thing I thought was, “Holy crap — you mean that saying ‘the self disappears’ isn’t a metaphor?” I truly thought it was! Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought “I” could literally disappear, and that everything else would remain.
It was actually a little bit of a let down, to tell you the truth! I was imagining that everything else would disappear and “I” would be a grand “I,” the “I” of All Things.
It appears not. I also must say that this disappearing act was not joyful, like it can be for some people. Maybe this is because I hadn’t done a lot of spiritual practices, so I was quite bamboozled as to what had happened. Luckily I talked to some people I know that are in a shamanic tradition, and I was pointed to Adyashanti’s The End of Your World audio recordings, which really helped me to understand what had happened to me.
I also went through a period of fairly intense suffering right after “I” vanished, where I felt like my ego came back and had to face the fact that something truly disastrous had happened to it. It’s like a part of me knew there was no going back to the way things had been, and I had to grieve this for a while.
Now, about seven months after “my” disappearance, I think the sense of a personal “I” is still somewhat present, but it is dissolving of its own will. I have more moments of bliss now than before, where happiness just surges for no reason at all. It’s truly wonderful!
Derek: In 1962 a Gallup poll asked people, “Have you ever had a mystical or spiritual experience?” When Gallup added up the answers, they found that 22% of people had at some point in their lives had a mystical or spiritual experience. That’s quite a lot — 22%. But when the Pew Forum asked the same question in 2009, they found that now 49% of people have had at least one spiritual or mystical experience. That’s huge — 49%! Imagine you’re talking to two people. The chances are, one of them has had at least one spiritual or mystical experience.
Why are so many of these awakenings happening nowadays?
As you know, I view awakening as a purely psychological phenomenon. Awakening is the sudden dissolution of the defense mechanisms and — if it goes deep enough — the dissolution of the illusion of a separate self.
I can think of a couple of reasons why more and more people are having these experiences.
One is that, over the last two or three generations, child-rearing methods have become much more liberal and permissive than they ever were in the past. The consequence of this is that people are growing up with less rigid defense mechanisms in place than they ever had before.
The other reason is that life is more stressful nowadays. People are subject to all sorts of psychological pressures that they weren’t in the past.
So you put those two together — more pressure on people, plus less rigid defense mechanisms — and it makes sense that more and more people are having openings of some kind.
What are the causes of these awakenings?
I’ve already alluded to one, which is external stress. Unfortunately, when people are subject to external stress and this is what produces their awakening, it often comes out in a chaotic or uncontrolled way. So people can have manic or even psychotic symptoms. Fortunately these usually fade after a couple of days or so.
People can also have awakenings because of internal stress. There’s nothing really happening — you might just be sitting in a room, listening to someone giving a talk. But the psychological forces that build up inside you are strong enough to produce an awakening. I’m thinking of two forces in particular. One is fear, which is the strongest and most primitive of the emotions. And the other is self-loathing, where the mind is trying to create the self and at the same time the mind hates the self. This also can produce awakening.
We can see this in the classical Christian born-again experience. It’s always preceded by a moment they call “the conviction of sin,” which is where people are afraid of the consequences of their past conduct and at the same time they hate themselves for their past conduct. They consider themselves to be wretched. So this is what we mean by the conviction of sin, and this is what immediately precedes the classical Christian born-again experience.
We can see this even before Jesus. We can see it in the teachings of John the Baptist. In the third chapter of Saint Luke’s gospel, John warns his audience about God’s wrath. So they’re afraid that something bad is going to happen because God’s going to be angry. There’s the fear. And then the self-loathing — he calls them sinners. He calls them the generation of vipers — the children of snakes. There’s the self-loathing. Those two together produce the conviction of sin, which leads to the born-again experience.
It’s not just in the Christian tradition that you find the conviction of sin and being born again. If you read Eckhart Tolle’s book The Power of Now, at the beginning, he talks about when he was twenty-nine years old. He reached this point of utter self-loathing. The thought came to him, “I can’t live with myself any more.” So there you have the self-loathing. And that was the point that immediately preceded his awakening. The next morning, after his mind had gone quiet and he’d slept, when he woke up he felt as though he’d just been born into the world. He actually uses that expression: “Just been born into the world.” And that began a five-month period of bliss for Eckhart Tolle.
So those are two reasons — external stress and internal stress.
There was another method that was tried in the Christian tradition and in the traditions of India for the longest time, which was the method of asceticism. Here you basically try and wear yourself out, to the point where you don’t have the energy to maintain the defenses. In Christianity that means fasting, vigils, and mortification of the flesh. It seems to have started in about the third century A.D. in the deserts outside Alexandria, Egypt, and then went on into early modern times, when it went out of fashion. These ascetic awakenings — because the method is to wear yourself out — tend to produce an awakening where the defense mechanisms are frayed rather than totally dissolved. People have experiences of visions and hearing voices and so on. So it seems a little unhealthy. They’ve gone out of fashion in the last few centuries, these ascetic methods.
These methods of awakening that I’ve talked about so far all involve putting pressure on the system. Oddly enough, you can also have an awakening from the exact opposite — from no pressure on the system at all. Here you have plenty of time. You go away on your own, so you’re not having to deal with other people. You have silence, so you don’t have sounds coming at you. If you cultivate feelings of love, for example through prayer or meditation, this also produces the absence of stress and the kind of relaxation you’re looking for. And if you keep this absence of pressure up for long enough, this also can produce awakening. So solitude, silence, love, prayer, and so on — these allow awakening by an expanding method, where the defense mechanisms have nothing to do and dissolve on their own.
In the Buddhist tradition, they seem to have turned awakening into a science. They use a combination of both pressure and relaxation. The pressure comes from methods of meditation such as just watching the breath — watching the breath to the exclusion of all else — or repeating a mantra. The effect of these is to focus your mind on just one thing. You push everything else, including your feelings, out of the way. So that’s the strengthening of the defense mechanisms. This seems to compact your feelings inside you, so that when you switch to another kind of meditation, where you’re just watching, things come up with more force. So this compression of psychological material, followed by allowing it to expand into awareness — this also can produce awakening.
Ozay: Everyone is on a path, but most are not conscious of it, and many who believe they are on a conscious path are often still on an unconscious path. It is a bit like when you are very tired. The mind gets taken by the power of the dream it is falling into. The more one goes with the dream, the more we fall into the sleep. But if we stop the dream — that is, if we stop the perpetual chatter and automaticness of mental behavior — then we become aware.
Derek: What are the effects of awakening?
To be a good, strong awakening — a true awakening — the key characteristic is the dissolution of the sense of a personal self. We can call this “disindividuation.” “Individuation” is the process that happens during the first few years of life, when we come to form a concept of ourselves as separate. So “disindividuation” is the opposite. And this disindividuation is the characteristic of a true awakening.
Alongside that, there may also be secondary effects. A general name for these — a psychoanalytic name — is “narcissistic elation.” This means feelings of universal love, feelings of euphoria, feelings of bliss, feelings of oneness, and so on. This is narcissistic elation.
You may also find, if you awaken, that a flood of insights comes to you. These can be insights about the personality that you formerly believed to be yourself. Or they can be insights about the workings of life, the workings of the universe, and so on. So a flood of insights is quite a common occurrence, although some people, such as Eckhart Tolle, actually have the opposite — a totally silent mind.
If you’re in a blissful state, a euphoric state, feeling great joy, and at the same time all kinds of new insights coming to you, there may be an urge to go around and evangelize others — to tell other people about your new-found bliss and insights. It generally doesn’t work very well. Other people either aren’t interested, or they don’t have a clue what you’re talking about. But this urge to evangelize other people is quite common.
And there may also be an urge to make major lifestyle changes in the aftermath of awakening. These may turn out not to be very realistic, because after awakening there’s often such optimism about the world that the mind produces quite unrealistic plans. But because of the bliss and the euphoria, you don’t realize at the time that your plans are unrealistic. So this urge to make major lifestyle changes is also quite common.
Along with these psychological effects, there can also be physiological effects, such as needing less sleep — for example, waking up after only three or four hours sleep. You might be a little bit tired during the day, but three or four hours is all your body seem to want.
And you can find that your sensitivity has increased. You might find you have the urge to change your diet. And you might find that your sense-perceptions seem to have been clarified — the cleansing of the doors of perception:
“If the doors of perception were cleansed, every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite.”
— William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
All of these — the narcissistic elation, the euphoria, the bliss, the optimism, through to the physiological effects — all of these secondary effects tend to fade after a while. They might fade after a few days or a few weeks. Eckhart’s bliss-period of five months was, I think, exceptionally long.
But the one feature that remains is the disindividuation. If it’s a true, deep awakening, then the dissolution of the sense of a separate and personal self will be permanent.
It might seem that talking about awakening in psychological terms does away with the need for religion. But here’s an interesting thing. You can actually read the gospels and find that they seem to be talking about this awakening — but not in an obvious way.
I’ll give you an example: “For nothing is secret that shall not made manifest, neither anything hid that shall not be known and come abroad” (Luke 8:17). If you read that in a conventional, external sense, it’s a statement about God’s plan. God has a plan for the world, which has remained hidden until now. But in the course of time, God’s plan will come to light. It’ll all be revealed, and the end-times will take place. That’s the outer, the external, the conventional sense.
But you can also read that verse as having an internal sense. It’s talking about the way material emerges from the unconscious into consciousness. You can read it in this internal way at the same time.
Even the doctrine of the Incarnation itself you can read in this way. The unmanifest has entered into manifestation; the Creator has entered into creation; “the Word has become flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).
Nome: Your comments are very insightful and true. After “me” vanished but seemingly reappeared, only to dissolve slowly, bliss appeared. It seems like I get bliss in small doses, perhaps because at first I couldn’t handle much of it. I like it much better this way, as it’s much less overwhelming. It’s as if as the small “me” dissolves, and I am falling from my head to my heart more and more — a lot like Adyashanti describes in his book The End of Your World.
As far as other things, I don’t think I’ve had a download of insights as much as, when I now read about awakening, I “get it,” whereas before it didn’t make a lot of sense.
Also you are very right about the urge to evangelize our new discoveries. Thankfully this seems to have started to dissipate in me, because you are absolutely correct in saying that most are not very interested in what we have to say. From my perspective, I find this hard to believe! But it does reflect back to me how much I have always sought this knowing in my own life. I realize now that, even as a child, I had this need to know who I truly am. I wouldn’t trade this for the world!
Ozay: Saint Clair said to Saint Francis of Assisi: “Tell me not how to be loved, but show me how to love.” She knew that she was incapable of loving. She could have pretended, though, that she did know, like many many people do. But she was insightful enough and honest enough to know she did not truly know love.
Loving yourself is a much deeper science than many people will understand. People think all they have to do is think it, and that’s it. But it’s not. There is a serious deconditioning needed in order to attain this state of inner loving. When you have achieved this, then the switch of love toward all others is turned on all the time.
Mind has to be stilled. Rest yourself in your belly. Try sitting in the lotus position. Relax all your muscles.
Then begin to observe the breath, just under the nostrils. Allow the breath to slow right down on its own naturally, and allow it to become very shallow.
Then let the attention drop down into the lowest part of your belly, until it begins to feel beautiful. Don’t make it happen. You can speak to it gently, if you like.
In with the breath comes love. Out with the breath goes love.
But don’t go to this stage with force. It must happen naturally.
Derek’s story appears in Chapter 4 of the essay The Phenomenon of Awakening. You can get The Phenomenon of Awakening in hardcover or paperback, or you can get electronic editions for Kindle, iPad, Kobo, or Nook.
Ozay’s autobiography is Freedom! Escaping the Prison of the Mind, available in paperback.