After a Spiritual Awakening: Some of the Bumps along the Road
A Spiritual Awakening is an extraordinary experience — a deeply felt realization of who we most fundamentally are.
For just a moment the identification with our ordinary selves dissolves.
We are neither caught by thought, sensation or emotion, and we seem to expand into being spacious awareness itself.
We are home and we know fundamentally who we are.
In this timeless state, everything is accepted just as it is. All is well.
There is a profound sense of peace and we know that there is only one fundamental something — a mystery — manifesting as all that is.
This, at least, is a typical experience of an awakening.
But, it’s just the start
After our first awakening many of us tend to feel that we have now ‘got it,’ that we are ‘There.’ And, we couldn’t be more wrong. There are still many potential pitfalls and illusions along the way.
An awakening is a starting point. It’s not the end.
It’s a waking up so that we can begin to live the question: ‘Now that I have experienced a bigger reality — now that I know what I know — how do I live in the ordinary world?’
And, it’s a massive challenge
A. H. Almaas, the originator of the Diamond Way, gives an example that points to just how difficult this integration is. He tells the story of Dogen the 13th century founder of the Sōtō school of Zen (the biggest school of Zen in Japan).
In his old age, Dogon was walking with a friend and the friend asked him how his realization was going and Dogen replied “My realization is doing pretty good. However, my body is still having difficulty going along with it.”
Now, Dogen was (and is) regarded as being the ‘Master’ — someone with an extremely high level of realization. His wrings are still regarded today — over 700 years later — as being profound. None the less, his personal self was still struggling with integration.
The problem is that we want to feel good
Part of the problem is that, in terms of our biology, we want to feel good (and preferably, even great) all the time. And so, we want to hold onto the awakened experience. And, if we do try, we’re in for a big disappointment.
It is extremely uncommon for anyone to stay awake, to have an abiding realization, and so most of us return to our ordinary selves and our ordinary lives again. The ‘me’ comes back and it feels lousy because we have had a glimpse of a much bigger life.
So, we want to get it back again
So, we tend think that the answer lies in getting high and staying high. Ram Dass and his colleagues (like so many before) tried this in the sixties. They did everything they could to get high and stay high — acid, magic mushrooms, mescaline, meditation…you name it.
Eventually, they had to admit that they couldn’t stay high. It was impossible.
The law of life is that, if you (your personal self) gets high, you will come down. There is no way of avoiding this.
Waking up is simply not about waking up in a permanent state of emotional bliss. In fact, this stage of Samadhi is regarded by the Tibetan Buddhists as being the most dangerous of all mental states because there is no motivation in it to become conscious at all. So, how do we understand this?
Well, the ‘highs’ are what we might call moments of transcendence — moments or periods of dissolution of our ordinary selves, together with a very expanded experience of reality. Time stops, the personal self is absent — or of little consequence — and all becomes One. Most Eastern religions emphasize this aspect of spiritual experience.
There is, however, another part to the story and that is incarnation. In this sense, incarnation is the integration of a realized view in this world. Jesus is a prime example of that process — God becoming flesh and blood as man.
It’s a lifetime’s work
So, although awakening allows one a glimpse of ultimate reality, incarnation — the integration of that insight — is the real work. And, it is the work of a lifetime.
And, the extraordinary realization that we come to — sooner or later — is that, if we are ruthlessly honest with our selves, our personal selves are relatively powerless to do anything about it.
We discover that the ‘me’ is far less capable than we commonly think and the ‘me’ fiercely resists finding this out.
To have a small taste of this, try an experiment.
Take a deep breath and let go. Relax you shoulders your neck, your belly.
Now, stay awake and to stop all thinking for 3 minutes. Try it now!
How did it go?
You weren’t able to do it. Right?
It’s humbling to find that we can’t even stop our thoughts at will. Not even for a few minutes!
The truth is that we have very much less conscious control than we think
There was a fascinating experiment by Benjamin Libet in the 1980’s in which he asked people to flick their wrists at random moments and to note (by watching the second hand on a clock) when they made the decision.
His experiment clearly showed that the people’s unconscious minds were readying themselves to flick their wrists about half a second before the conscious decision to flick the wrist. It was not the conscious mind that made the decision to flick the wrist.
This experiment has been replicated a number of times and the findings have held.
We have very much less conscious control than we like to think.
The answer lies in surrender
The spiritual teacher, Adyashanti, has commented on more than one occasion that the 12-step programs are far more effective spiritual traditions than many conventional spiritual traditions because the programs emphasize the reality of our powerlessness and encourage our surrender to a Higher Power.
My ego’s natural way (like that of many) is to understand and to control and so I really have to wrestle with this notion of surrender and I have tried many experiments over the last few years of simply letting go — of giving up the notion that I have any control.
The first time I did this was when I was walking home. I was tired and wanted to rest and I decided to see what would happen. What happened was that my body just walked home. I didn’t have to do a thing! I just relaxed and watched it happen.
The reality is that the body-mind just does its thing. If you don’t believe that then — just for now — give up completely and see what happens. I promise that, at some point, your body will get up and carry on with active life. It just happens.
I often think that our (ordinary) conscious minds are like children in the back of a car moving plastic steering wheels while imagining that they are steering the cars. The deeper I dig, the more I know this to be true.
No one gets free
The reality is that your ‘me’ — your ordinary, everyday self — is just a combination of biology and experience and in its very nature, it is very limited.
Not only that, the ordinary you does not wake up. Your personality never becomes enlightened. It never becomes free.
It is Consciousness that wakes up in you.
That is not to say that we can deny the personal self — that it is irrelevant.
Even if we have a profound realization that there is no separate individual self — whether we like it or not — a personal sense of an individual self remains.
This is disappointing and difficult. The sense of a separate personal self is so seductive.
The temptation, if one is partly awake is to go into spacious awareness (when one is able) and thereby to deny ordinary reality — treating it as a hologram or illusion. Consciousness becomes a hiding place and one becomes like the emperor in his new clothes!
However we understand it, the sense of self remains and so does the experience of an ordinary reality and the critical thing is whether or not we identify with a personal self because it is that identification that determines whether or not we go back into the ‘dream.’
Even when we realize this a massive challenge remains, because when someone hurts, angers or frightens us, it’s very difficult not to fall back into the dream.
Ram Dass tells a wonderful story of returning to the USA from an extended time with his guru in India, dressed like a holy man and shining with light. And, all it took to bring him back into his personal self was his father asking: ‘Have you got a job yet!’
It’s no good fighting this. One has to accept where one is.
Abiding is the key
Buddha encouraged a mindfulness of the body and, if one does this, one cannot help but be in touch with emotion and hence a sense of personal self that tends to follow.
The key is in how one relates to the sense of self and to the raw emotion.
For example, if one finds oneself angry, one can learn to simply accept the fiery energy and tension in the body. If one does this, the emotion will pass.
If, on the other hand, one resists the emotion, it will remain around for much longer.
This is particularly the case if one buys into stories that the mind generates in reaction to the emotion — ‘Did you see how he drove through that red traffic light! It’s outrageous! He could have killed someone. What is this damned country coming to?’
What you are doing with the stories is fanning the flames and the anger intensifies and remains alive — sometimes for dozens of generations. One has only to look at what is happening between Moslem and Jew (and, increasingly, again, between Moslem and Christian) to see that happening.
I love the word ‘abide’ — which is one of the words used to describe mindfulness in the Buddhist suttas. For me, it has connotations of relaxing, accepting completely and being utterly present with. This is the awake state. As the ego goes through its ups and downs, its contractions and expansions, its dramas and its ignorance, Consciousness remains accepting and untouched.
It’s the ego that tries to change things — that wants to get free, that doesn’t want to be caught by difficult emotion or suffer. But, the truth is that this is what ego’s do and, if we fight against that reality in any way, we are taking ourselves away from true mindfulness — abiding as Consciousness itself.
One can only do this if one is ruthlessly honest with oneself and if one learns to be utterly accepting of the sheer lunacy and relative powerlessness of the ego. One’s degree of acceptance determines how much one is able to surrender into the dance.
In a precious moment, you find yourself awake on a walk in a beautiful wood and you are drawn to the texture of the bark on the trees, the color of the lichen, the smell of the earth. No sense of “I’ … just experiencing. Then, a bunch of drunken teenagers arrives shouting and giggling and you find yourself tightening and feeling angry and thinking: “Darn kids. Why do they have to spoil such beauty!”
Oneness has gone. There’s now a ‘me’ and a ‘them.’
Whether we like it or not, we are forced to accept that both are there — the experience of being human and the experience of being awake. Later, one experiences oneself being awake with the human experience.
Be here now!
After an awakening, we realize just how much relief comes from the relinquishment of the madness of the ordinary self — its dramas, its doubts, its dissatisfaction, its fears — and, of course, we want to get that back.
Paradoxically, however, the very desire to get that back generates in us an aversion to the present moment that virtually guarantees that we will not re-experience the awakening.
Eckhart Tolle reminds us again and again that we need to be present with this moment — Now — in order to open again. He claims it to be one of the principal portals to Presence and I find that to be very true.
Of course, as he himself says, this teaching is nothing new. Ram Dass was encouraging us to ‘Be here now’ in the sixties and Buddha was encouraging us to abide with the present moment 2500 years ago.
The only real place to start is now, exactly where and how we are. And, that can be experienced by the ego as being pretty boring.
In fact, many of the people that I have seen who have had an awakening, found — at some stage — that their life had become dull and boring. This is one of the dead-ends along the way.
Most often this arises from an (often unconscious) resistance to things as they are — to life as it is — and, if they see that this is true and to allow themselves to open and welcome (internally) whatever experience is arising, a vivid aliveness returns to their lives like flowers that blossom in the desert after rain.
Other suffer post-realization with states of meaninglessness.
This tends to happen when people have realized an expanded state of awareness but have not yet opened their hearts. The opening has happened at the level of the head. It’s open, spacious and clear but meaningless.
But, when one’s heart opens, the experience is profoundly different. There is a sense of aliveness as well as the sense of infinite openness. Meaninglessness is simply not present. There is no need for meaning. Meaning and meaninglessness are functions of the ordinary mind. The experience is absolutely enough in and of itself.
For others, there is fear. I often see is people opening up to a partial experience of open spacious awareness only to become frightened or disillusioned because their experience — from their ego’s point of view — is one of emotional emptiness. And this frightens them.
The tendency, then, is to withdraw and to seek out much more pleasant states.
This is natural to our biology but it is not helpful because the solution lies not in avoiding — but in approaching the emptiness — by drawing as near to the experience as one can.
One helpful way is to imagine pulling the experience of emptiness towards oneself and, if one is able to do this, one discovers that the emptiness is a portal into a much bigger reality.
Instead of feeling fear in the emptiness, one finds oneself resting in something very different — a conscious, loving spaciousness in which there is no need or fear at all. Here, one feels utterly at home.
We are not special
Others fall into an illusion after an awakening that they are special. They are now one of the few that ‘know.’
This is simply the inflated illusion of the ego. The reality of an awakened experience is that it is not an experience that is deeply known by the ego. It is an experience that has broken through despite the ego.
The reality is that no one is special. We just ‘are.’ In fact, the absolute reality is that there is no other to be more special than us. This can be very humbling for the ego.
Everything is OK
But, as one’s realization becomes more integrated, there are huge upsides.
As one observes life, one can’t but help but realize that, whatever we do, both good and bad happen. Any resistance to this generates suffering.
There will be pleasure and there will be pain. It’s just the nature of life. We need to learn to accept it and, to the degree we do, we will have a felt-sense of everything being fine, of all being well.
Suffering comes when we resist reality by creating aversion to it.
Let’s say, as an example, that there are reactions in the body we normally call anger — a sense of raised tension and energy in the body and a rapid heart rate. That is all it is! The sensations in and of themselves may be a bit unpleasant but we can (and generally do) create suffering for ourselves by thinking: ‘I am angry.’
In that thought, we have created a ‘me’ and begun to develop a story. There is a ‘me’ and ‘I’ am angry.
Then we tend to build on that story: ‘How could she let me down like that! After all I have done for her!…’ And, the story runs and the unpleasantness continues and so we suffer.
Seeing through the story is the first step out of the suffering. There is only the sense of raised tension and energy in the body and the sense of a rapid heart rate. And, if we fully accept that, it will soon pass. Such is the power of mindful acceptance!
I remember hearing Jack Kornfield talking about an annual meeting of spiritual teachers and what struck him most was that in the ‘go around,’ each teacher would talk of the challenges of the year. They would speak of deaths and illnesses and other difficult experiences of life. But, they all tended to end by saying something to the effect that, despite these events, ‘all is fine.’
Such a statement requires considerable levels of acceptance.
Life is as it is and, if we can accept it, there is no unnecessary suffering.
Waking up is a never-ending process
What we also need to accept is that realization is a never-ending process.
The very pleasant experience after an awakening tends to be that we are complete and that we have reached full realization. This is a very ‘real’ feeling.
Later, we find out that we were, in fact, not fully awake and that there is more deepening to be had.
Then the new realization feels complete. Later we find yet another experience of deepening and realize that we were wrong, yet again. Eventually one develops a sense of humor.
Self-esteem is not important
Of course, waking up has much going for it. One of the great reliefs of the integration of awakening (particularly for those of us who have struggled with self-esteem) is the experience that when one is awake, self-esteem is a total non-issue.
It’s not that one is good when one is awake. It’s just that when one is awake, one is neither good nor bad. This, alone, is very freeing.
Our essential Nature is good
Another of the great delights of waking up is the discovery that there is a natural movement out of spacious awareness into kindness, wisdom and peace.
It’s the nature of Consciousness to expresses itself that way. This is why the Buddhists claim our essential nature to be good and, to our egos, it certainly feels that way. It’s very reassuring.
You will never be the same
Once you’ve had an awakening, something has changed forever and — like it or not — you are on this incredible journey down the river of life.
And, it’s by no means a linear journey. We get caught and then we wake up. Then, we get caught again. So, remember that sense of humor!
Much ground has been covered in this post so, if you would like me to go into any aspect in more detail, just let me know by clicking here.
Bill Petrie is a Coach and Spiritual Mentor with decades of experience and training. Most of his work is online with people as far afield as the USA, UK, Europe, South Africa and Australia.
Bill has taught meditation and has mentored people on their spiritual journeys for many years.