What 'spiritual awakening' really means

What the heck is 'awakening'? I define it below in four ways, but first I have to say this: if you haven’t gone through the awakening process, at least in part, you are very likely to regard spiritual awakening as a myth, a carrot dangled by a guru who wants your money, or a way for self-important spiritual types to self-aggrandize or engage in power dynamics, or, at best, a way to glorify a peak experience. But in truth, none of those things have anything to do with real awakening. It is not a peak experience: it’s not an experience at all (though of course it can be accompanied by experience). It’s a different kind of thing (or rather, no-thing) entirely. 

What is awakening, if it’s not an experience? It’s a paradigm shift that reconfigures the way you experience everything. There may or may not be an experiential element to this paradigm shift, but it doesn’t matter. Awakening accompanied by fireworks and awakening accompanied by nothing to write home about (which is much more common) are the same in terms of where they land you. 

But where is that? In Western discourse, awakening has been wrongly conflated with 'enlightenment' which entails some kind of mystical download of knowledge or wisdom. While spiritual discourse can make it seem as if the awakened person knows something—or has something—the unawake person doesn’t, it’s actually the other way around. Awakening entails losing something—specifically, your deeply conditioned beliefs about who you are and what the world is—and gaining nothing. 

’Awakening’ itself is of course a metaphor. Since no human language has an adequate word for this paradigm shift, we (teachers of Asian spiritual traditions) use the metaphor of waking up out of a dream, because that’s what it feels like. 

Though it’s true that someone is either awake or not, there are also different versions, or some would say different stages, in the awakening process. These are the ones I’ve been able to identify, here presented clearly and without jargon.

1. Waking up out of the socially constructed self: that is, out of the belief that your thoughts, memories, self-images, or 'stories' define, delimit or describe you. In other words, waking up out of the dream that the contents of thought have anything to do with who (or what) you fundamentally are. This entails seeing clearly that there is no ostensive referent to the ‘I’ thought — that is, seeing that that concept ‘I’ doesn't actually point to anything but a fabricated, ill-defined, nebulous and contradictory self-image; a thought or idea of 'me' that sits on top of, and veils, your deeper being. (Though 'I' can also refer to pure being, that's not how most people use the word.) In real awakening, these are all experiential realizations, not conceptual ones, which is why they're so hard to put into words effectively.

2. Waking up out of conceptual overlay — that is, no longer projecting your concepts of things onto things. This is simply the natural extension of #1 above. Getting out of the habit of conceptual/interpretive overlay takes a long time for most people to work through, but if one follows this thread of realization to its terminus, it leads inevitably to: 

3. Waking up out of the dream of separation. By completely shedding the belief that there are objects (and people) separate from yourself, you awaken to the truth of seamless unity with all that is. Though this particular version/stage of awakening is often glorified, in actuality it's not mystical or anything; it's just seeing clearly without the filter of the conditioned mind (yes, that's possible, or else most of the Asian spiritual traditions are wrong about their most central tenet). You don't attain unity; you experientially recognize that you have never been separate from anything ever.

4. Waking up out of the belief in objective reality, here defined as the imagined existence of an observer-independent universe of material objects with independent essences. This is too difficult and subtle to explain here, and as lived experience (rather than a concept) is certainly even weirder than it sounds. 

So you see, referring back to my earlier blog post, Matthew Remski missed the point when he said that the word ‘awake’ adds nothing to the statement “You can be awake and still be a jerk, or you can be awake and be integrated” — because spiritually speaking, without awakeness, there’s nothing to integrate. Awakeness is not just another interpretation of reality to integrate with all your other stories — it's a paradigm shift that obliterates interpretations and launches you into an absolutely indescribable mode of being in which the only true 'knowing' is unknowing everything you ever thought you knew. It's dwelling in raw intimacy with absolutely every thing, free of the need to understand or interpret it, and free of the impulse to accept or reject it. (Including your own thoughts!)

It is the process of integrating these stages of awakening that is most thoroughly life-changing. Until then, depending on the ‘strength’ of awakening, you can flip back and forth between your new mode of perception and the old one, and the old may even, in some cases, reassert itself permanently. More importantly, prior to integration, your awakening doesn’t substantially alter your behavior or benefit anyone else. 

Remski has argued that "the notion of 'awakening' categorizes people into in-crowds and out". Yes, it sure seems to, but here's the problem: if awakened awareness (Skt. bodha, bodhi, prabuddha, etc.) is really a thing and actually constitutes a different paradigm of being, how can we avoid such a distinction? And when any distinction exists, people will create the story that it's better to be one or the other. However, the irony here is that any awake person knows that being awake confers no superiority or advantage over others whatsoever. It’s not in any way a ‘better’ condition to be in, though many find it more joyful and/or free.

It is true, however, that someone who hasn’t experienced awakening is unable to talk about it meaningfully. This isn’t exclusionism, any more than it's exclusionism to say that someone who’s never tasted a mango is unable talk about it meaningfully. If it is really true that someone is either awake or they’re not (though of course there are degrees of the former), and that there’s no way to know what awakeness is like until you’ve experienced it for yourself, than how can we possibly language it without some people seeing the language as exclusionist? How can we talk about it in a way that doesn't invite projection? I really don't know. If you have an idea on this, please do post it in the comments below. 

If people who hear about awakening desire for it to happen to them, fine. But they are no more disempowered by that desire than someone who wants to know what it’s like to see Earth from space, or someone who wants to learn to scuba-dive. In both cases, they’ll need help to get there, they'll need a teacher or coach, and there’s no shame in that, nor any necessity for power-plays. (With emphasis on the word 'necessity' — they happen, but they don't have to; they aren't inherent in the pedagogical structure like Remski seems to think.)

Having said all this, Matthew is absolutely right when he says that this word 'awakening' — this claim, if it is made — has social capital in certain ‘spiritual’ circles, and is complexly wedded to issues of transference and countertransference in those circles. Social capital can always be used for good or ill. That’s exactly why people who’ve gone through the awakening process are very unlikely to declare themselves ‘awake’ or, god forbid, ‘enlightened’. (Though there are rare exceptions to this rule.) And Matthew is also correct when he suggests that we shouldn’t be concerned with whether anyone else is awake, because we can’t know that with any certainty. 

In conclusion, I hope that these clear definitions of awakening are a step toward the 'informed consent' that Remski and many others are rightly concerned about. In undertaking studentship, it's important that you know what you're signing up for, otherwise 'consent' is meaningless, Remski argues; and that's why I wrote this post. Of course, the problem still remains that words describe these alternate paradigms less well than they describe any philosophy or religion, because these paradigms are not conceptually-based. That is, they don't arise as a result of believing something. 

Having said all this, I should clarify that there’s no reason anyone ought to be interested in this whole awakening thing. Unless they can’t help it. If you’re one of those people, please watch this video:

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This post was originally a response to Matthew Remski's response to my response to his response to my original post raises some very important questions and issues. (This post marks the conclusion—for now—of the discussion.) 

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POSTSCRIPT: A couple of years back, Remski attempted to analyze and criticize Sam Harris' book Waking Up, which is about the possibility of spiritual awakening without religion. I think this book is very good and very interesting indeed, and reading Remski's review convinced me that he didn't actually understand, from a first-person perspective, what Harris was talking about. For example, Harris has a great analogy for waking up, in which you're looking through a window and instead of attending to the objects you see through the window, suddenly you refocus to see your reflection in the window itself. This analogy describes the shift from fascination with the contents of consciousness to a fascination with consciousness itself. As Harris puts it, "You don't realize that you are looking through the very thing you are trying to find in every moment." (I.e., awareness.) Remski takes this as a latter-day version of the Cartesian Theatre (a bizarre charge to level at an intellectual as sophisticated as Harris). In fact, it is just another way of saying that the 'I' cannot see itself as an object; when Harris talks about recognizing your face reflected in the window, he is talking about the recognition that 'you' are simply awareness itself, since that is the only common factor to all your experiences. He is not using it as a metaphor for "deconstruction of the social self" as Remski says, though that deconstruction (or rather, falling apart) of the socially constructed self is something that happens consequent upon seeing through the illusion of that self (i.e., seeing its constructed, impermanent, ephemeral, adventitious nature -- seeing that it is not the real "I"). But, as is clear from his review, Remski does not believe that "experiencing the mechanism of consciousness" is even possible; and so it seems to anyone who has not had that experience. It is, as he says, the recognition that you have no face at all, but simultaneously it is the recognition that there is a self-less conscious presence underlying the "continually generated flow of masks", which is what Harris is talking about, and what Remski seems to miss. 

A few years back, I wrote this definition of awakening, which while less precise perhaps, makes a few points worthy of consideration that are not included in the above discussion:
"Awakening (bodha), often mistranslated as “enlightenment,” refers to the process of attaining a bright and clear awareness of your essence-nature, that is to say, that which lies beyond the conditioned mind (yet provides the context for it). Awakening initiates a process of liberation (mokṣa), that is, becoming free of the conditioned mind and all its self-images, together with the conditioned energies (e.g., attachment and aversion) that arise from it. Attaining some degree of liberation then makes possible a deeper awakening to your essence-nature, which then makes possible more freedom, in positive feedback loop. Awakening is not an experience per se, nor a state of mind -- it is simply being in touch with what is already true, moment to moment, and letting action flow from that place. Awakening is ever-deepening love for the truth, ever-expanding love for the simple miracle of awareness itself."