What is Spiritual Awakening?

The true meaning of spiritual awakening, as it has been known classically in both Christian and Buddhist traditions is the waking up of consciousness to the remembrance of its original nature. It is a movement of the psyche where the individual sense of self-identification has fallen away, and awareness stands with nothing to identify itself, and yet it knows itself as being aware. It is like moving from being a noun to a verb. Instead of being some one, we know we are aware-ing, sensing, thinking, feeling or being whatever movement is happening in this one moment. At the same time the physical body/mind has become irrelevant.

It is there in a relative sense, perhaps still and empty, or perhaps blissful, but one is no longer identified as this. Waking up to our true nature is the first step toward liberation.

The varieties of awakening experience

There are many varieties of mystical or spiritual experiences which have come to be described as spiritual awakening, and this leads to great confusion for many spiritual aspirants, who having experienced a great event, but still not sensing completion or freedom in their process, become attached to the idea that a frequent repetition of such awakenings will lead to some big overwhelming experience that will be the final awakening. In addition, many people refer to any event that motivated them to begin a spiritual search as a “spiritual awakening”. While all of these other forms are definitely great movements that might be given this label, there would be more clarity in the understanding of spiritual process if we could limit the term to its classical meaning, and define other events more precisely

Examples of spiritual experiences that have been called awakening include:

Kundalini Awakening: An activation of energy, usually beginning from the base of the spine and flowing upward, which brings about significant changes in consciousness and cellular patterns over a period of time, bringing about a clearing of the former identifications.

Heart Opening: A deep sense of opening in the chest, often with an overwhelming sense of unconditional love for all beings, which brings about a significant change in the psychological orientation, increasing sensitivity, compassion and appreciation for life.

Psychic Opening: An eruption of an image or an inner knowing about people, events, other lives, physics, celestial music, auras or other paranormal, visionary or auditory experiences.

Initial Mystical Experience: Consciousness breaks through it’s boundaries of your personal self, and experiences a vast expanse of being or presence, great light, a spiritual vision or a sense of cosmic connectedness for a brief period of time, occasionally lasting for a few days. Sometimes understanding about the nature of reality, or other aspects of wisdom or love accompany the experience.

Initial Response to a guru or teacher that stimulates one to follow a spiritual path: Shaktipat is the Sanscrit term for the transmission sometimes received in the presence of an awakened teacher, and is usually felt as a charge or rush of energy or ecstasy, or perhaps a stopping of the mind for a few seconds. One is impacted in such a way that they directly feel how consciousness and physicality are intimately related to spiritual experience. This often inspires them to follow spiritual teachers or practices and begins a process of reorganizing the energy system in new patterns. An experience called Diksha is an energy transmission given by people who have training in moving energy into others, that appears to activate kundalini and trigger an intense clearing process.

Drug experiences: During a drug-induced high some people apparently have aspects of the above experiences, or perceive the universe of form in its aspect of energy or light. These tend to be temporary openings, not readily accessible once the high has passed, or repeatable. But they can open a person up to a genuine search, so that other awakenings can occur in a way that more sustainable.

Waking Up is Not an Experience

The experience of waking up is different than these mystical events, and in fact has often been said to be no experience. It is a ground level shift that occurs right now, right here, and whether it lasts a minute or a lifetime, the Truth of who you are is known. This is a significant step towards self-realization, and essential to the liberation of consciousness from the confines of a limited personality structure.

Other spiritual experiences can be rich, ecstatic and deeply satisfying while they last, but are subject to coming and going, leaving behind much frustration in the person who felt them, and stimulating the ego to expose themselves to more and more experiential stimulants in order to regain what it feels has been lost. In simpler terms, we become addicted to seeking high experiences. We strengthen the spiritual ego when this happens, and may stay in a cycle of pleasure and loss for many years, and miss a precious opportunity to find total inner peace.

Waking up is what happens in response to the question “Who is having these experiences?” and searching neither thought nor emotion to find an answer. It is not the process of having an experience, however ecstatic and profoundly mystical it may be. It is the understanding of that which has an experience, or that which lives through us and is eternally present through all time and experience. To wake up we have to give up the idea that we are a personal identity who is seeking experiences, and begin to wonder what is really true underneath and behind all experiences that humans live.

Many westerners who have followed spiritual practices for a long time have a history of sporadic mystical experiences; some of them, unfortunately, even suffer from the naive belief that they did something bad to cause these experiences to go away. But all experiences pass. That is the nature of experience. We are blessed with the joy or the insight or the expansion as if it is a taste of something beyond our comprehension. And it passes. Unfortunately there is little understanding of the dynamics of spiritual process, and so people create beliefs about what is happening that do not help them move more deeply into Truth. I know this is so because I did it for over twenty years. I studied eastern spiritual systems, met over a dozen gurus, moved very deeply into my own transformative process through meditation and energy work, and had many experiences of merging, of energy and ecstasy and of expanding into what psychiatrist Richard Bucke so beautifully labeled, Cosmic Consciousness. I have known dozens of others who have done the same. While these were all rich and wonderful experiences I never felt finished. Instead it seemed like I could leave my life and visit a more ecstatic place, and return to cope with all the disagreeable aspects of living. It felt like I was living much of my life by escaping it. I still believed “I” was having the experiences, both good and bad. I asked the proverbial question “Is that all there is?”

A Teacher Can Shift Your World

What shifted my entire world was an encounter with a young man who had known and now lived a true awakening, following many years of intense practice in the Zen Buddhist tradition. Adyashanti’s perspective was that the intense practice, with all the experiences it brought, were an absolute failure. Only when he reached the depths of despair that this thing was not working for him did he have a total breakthrough of consciousness, and the recognition of who he was. This occurred in conjunction with such an extreme rise of kundalini energy forcing itself through his body that he thought he would die. When he surrendered to this possibility he was opened into the vastness and a direct realization of his true nature. Of course, his intense zen meditation practice likely laid the groundwork for this awakening, but it was the totality of despair that seems to have cracked open the separate sense of self.

The first thing I saw clearly when sitting in a silent meditation retreat with Adya was that there was no absolute truth available to the mind. All mental constructs are relative, time-limited, and far, far too narrow to encompass the truth of what we are. It can be known directly but it cannot be taught, so teachers are left with only the possibility of pointing the student in the direction they need to go.

The second thing I learned, and I am not sure how this happened, is that awakening was something that happened right now, in this moment, in this body and this world. It was not a transcendent dip into the cosmic plane. This is not to say that such dips can and do happen regularly to mystics. But that is a trip of the mind into another reality, and not the true understanding of Self. Perhaps in some traditions deepening samadhi states eventually erase the experiencer, so that the Truth of Being dawns on them. But I have not seen large number of truly liberated people emerging from these traditions. Very often the seduction of samadhi means the return to a lived awakening is not made.

In the direct path or the non-dual traditions, such as Adyashanti teaches, there is a transmission that occurs in the intimate relationship between student and teacher in which a kind of resonance opens the student’s mind or heart until they can see that they too are what the teacher lives. There is only one being and both of them are it. I once thought this was something special, only existing between a teacher and student. But no, it is the secret of all existence. We are all this One being. My teacher is simply the first person who reflected it to me so perfectly I could not miss it, and I was ready to see it when he came into my life. Every single person that has ever lived or ever will live is this same One.

The mind can hardly bear to consider this, because its primary role in our lives has been to establish our separate self, collecting all kinds of evidence to help us individuate into the unique person we are at any moment in time. Minds are busy creating us, through every life experience, and every stage and age of life. They mold us according to the teachings of our family, race, culture, gender, religion and many other influences. When we take on a spiritual path the mind begins turning us into a spiritual person, with all the beliefs, identifications and trappings that entails. This may be a new and improved “me”, but if we wake up we will see through it all as a play, a dance, and an illusion. Waking up ultimately makes us more simple, and brings us down to earth.

After the Ecstasy, Deconstruction

Of course the realization of Self or Truth that is spiritual awakening can bring great passionate joy and exaltation. It feels like the culmination of a search that has lasted thousands of years, finding at last our roots, our home, and our source. But after the ecstasy, an adjustment period lies ahead. There is a paradox because the search has ended, but a new dimension of spiritual development has begun; every aspect of the psyche is going to be exposed to the light of consciousness. This has been called the dark night of the soul, the stage of purification, the unloading of the unconscious, transformation, crucifixion, moving through the hell realms, and many other things. I think of it as deconstruction. The structure is being disassembled so that spirit can live freely without the old conditioning.

This deconstruction period can involve the activation of kundalini energy, dramatic shifts in perception and senses, opening to psychic and paranormal experiences, and what Adyashanti has called “The fire of Truth.” A person may go into great expanses of emptiness, which is wondrous to the being, but frightening to the mind. To the extent one clings or tries to return to the old mental habits and perspectives there is great distress. The challenge is to stay present with whatever arises and eventually surrender all tendencies to be divided. In other words, until the Self or the Emptiness or the Oneness (however we try to frame this enormous internal truth), comes completely forward to rule our life we are unfinished, and struggling with a sense of two worlds and two lives. Gradually as the inner spirit becomes dominant a sense of deep and unspeakable peace moves into the cells. Over time we find ourselves spontaneously feeling love, compassion, clarity, acceptance of what is, and even a slight inclination to action that is authentic and natural for us. These qualities are not chosen, but rather seem to bubble up from the source of consciousness within.

When there is no longer any struggle, because all that is left of the little “me” is a slight memory and flavor, and perhaps a few insignificant preferences that can easily be put aside, the spiritual journey is over. There can be more, perhaps an endless range, of teachings and blessings, but there is no more longing or desiring for any of them. Just as the empty screen on the TV tells you the programming is over for the night, the mind who seeks or longs or desires is no longer functioning in that space. And the program is very unlikely to be renewed. Of course the functional mind still works and everyday tasks can be done, sometimes with greater efficiency because there are no psychological impediments. But the story that defined you has faded into oblivion. To live without the story, without demands, and without a sense of personal struggle is to live an awakened life.

Please do not Reproduce without written permission from the author

© Bonnie Greenwell Ph.D.

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