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Awakening: A Lifetime Process

Awakening: A Lifetime Process

Modernly we hear a lot of people calling themselves “Woke”; interestingly these people fall into their own rigid way of thinking, but somehow by surrounding themselves with others who will not challenge their beliefs, they feel they are “evolved”

– meanwhile looking from the outside, one can see there really is not much difference between those they criticize and who they themselves have become – both ruled by dogma and the need to be right, over the desire to expand and maintain an open mind and heart, in order to better discern by learning and experiencing other points of view…

The only similarity between woke and awakening is that its terminology means that you wake up.  But getting woke is like waking up in a dream. You think you are in control. You think you know reality, yet you are still in a dream-induced state.  Yogis and Sages define a woke person as someone who likes to be pleasing to everyone yet confuses this with being understanding. In its opposite, there is the rigid woke who thinks he has become illuminated by looking down on the other extreme of the pendulum.  In living between extremes, society keeps getting increasingly divided and less peaceful, yet those on the opposite end of the spectrum – already mentioned- do not like to look at how much their attitude about life contributes to the current state of affairs worldwide.

Wokeness is still confused with illumination, yet it remains part of the illusion. That’s okay; even Plato tried to teach us about Maya, or the illusion of reality, but this illusion through experiences can catapult you into awakening from a doormat (rigid) state; only then can the lifetime quest to illumination unfold. For just like waking up in a dream, you realize that although you are still dreaming, you have become more lucid…more free.

I will share with you excerpts from a book I was reading, which I feel better explains what awakening really is, and what it isn’t. As you read it, you realize that falsely accepting false rebellion (it serves no purpose) isn’t awakening; neither are you awakening when, out of tiredness, pain, loneliness, duty, or feeling defeated, you succumb to a rigid/dogmatic point of view. One can have an affinity with a particular creed; that is not only natural, it is necessary as each person is a unique world; yet awakening means still being capable of remaining open to other paths, understanding that not everyone is the same, and although your path might bring you peace, it might not be the path someone else needs – that is the sign of spiritual and psychological maturity, which are the main signs of spiritual awareness or awakening….

Perhaps no single word has been so misused and misunderstood by those on the spiritual path than ‘enlightenment’. Misunderstanding the meaning and usage of this word can actually constitute a hindrance on the spiritual path; and understanding why it’s the wrong word, and why ‘awakening’ is a better one, entails insights into the purpose of spiritual practice that constitute considerable assets on the journey.

The definition of the word ‘enlightenment’, in its spiritual sense (as opposed to its rationalist sense), is given in the Oxford Dictionary of English (and several others) as: “the action or state of attaining or having attained spiritual knowledge or insight”. Under this definition, the word is definitely a Near Enemy of the truth. First off, given the assumption that knowledge is something expressed in words or other symbols, there is no knowledge that could be imparted which would bring about enlightenment. If there were, that knowledge would have been discovered by now, and the majority of humanity would be enlightened, just like the majority of humanity can do basic arithmetic. The more significant issue, however, is this: the existence of the noun ‘enlightenment’ implies a final state in which one has reached the ultimate insight and knows the secret of existence, and it further implies a binary opposition with a state of ‘unenlightenment’. In this misconstrued paradigm, there’s only two states: you’re either enlightened or you’re not. If that’s what you believe to be the case, then you are likely to strive mightily to attain this ultimacy, which is a problem because both the action of striving and the concept of an attainment undermine the possibility of spiritual awakening. Furthermore, you’re also likely to believe that this putative attainment would elevate you above the mass of humans or exalt you somehow, and this kind of hierarchical thinking is also antithetical to spiritual awakening.  

But there’s an even more insidious effect of this misunderstanding. The great majority of those who assume this definition of enlightenment imagine that it doesn’t represent anything that is possible for them in this lifetime. In other words, the putative state of enlightenment has become so over-glorified and mythologized that most practitioners of yoga and meditation today don’t consider it as a serious possibility for themselves, and the ones who do tend to have heavily inflated egos. And those ancient and modern figures commonly held out as examples of ‘complete enlightenment’, like the Buddha and Ramana Maharshi, are so severely pedestalized that people don’t see in them a mirror of what’s possible for any human being sufficiently interested.

I would propose that ‘enlightenment’ is a near enemy of the truth that I (and some others) like to call ‘abiding awakeness’. But this is not about using the ‘right’ language. It’s about understanding what we mean by these words, and specifically why the connotations of one term might be more beneficial than that of another. Here I want to argue that spiritual awakening constitutes a spectrum with an indefinite number of points along it, and as a consequence awakening is possible for anyone, and more awakeness is possible for anyone already awake.

The first order of business, then, is define exactly what we mean by the word awakening and its related forms, like ‘awakeness’. The word awakening (and its cognates) has now become so common that it’s easy to forget that it is in fact a metaphor for something for which we literally don’t have any native word in English (or any European language). It’s a metaphor that implies that whatever we’re talking about is analogous to waking up from a dream. The analogy is a good one, for reasons I’ll describe below, but let’s remember that no analogy is ever perfect.

At this point some readers are no doubt wondering about the Sanskrit word that scholars of the 19th and 20th centuries translated as ‘enlightenment’. That word is bodha (or its synonym bodhi), which in fact means ‘being awake’. The choice to translate it as ‘enlightenment’ in the 19th century was very much influenced by the European usage of the word in reference to the philosophical movement of the 18th century known as the Enlightenment, even though it had little in common with the Buddhist and Hindu philosophies using the word bodha. For those who wish to know the full semantic range of the Sanskrit term, it is glossed in the dictionaries as: waking, becoming or being awake, the waking state, consciousness, the opening of a blossom, wisdom, perception, apprehension, thought, knowledge, understanding, intelligence, instruction, or advice, depending on the context. So in the original language, there’s no bright line between the concept of awakening and that of awareness per se. The meaning of the word bodha depended on context, as did its cognate buddha, which simply meant ‘awakened’, not only in the spiritual sense, but more often in the everyday physical sense of having woken up from a night’s sleep.

So having established, I hope, that the translation ‘awake’ or ‘awakening’ is most appropriate for bodha, what the heck actually is it? I will define it below in four ways, but first I have to say this: if you haven’t yet entered the awakening process, you are very likely to regard it as a myth, or a carrot dangled by a guru who wants your money, or a psychological delusion, or an imaginary concept leveraged by self-important spiritual types to self-aggrandize and engage in power dynamics, or perhaps a temporary experience like an altered state of consciousness. But to you I say that awakening is real, and it has nothing to do with any of those things (though all those things do happen as well). It is not a psychological state, or a peak experience: in fact, strange as it may sound, it’s not an experience at all. Awakeness is a specific mode of experiencing; a different paradigm of being, we could say.

Now the language I’ve just used seems to contradict what I said before, that awakening is a spectrum, not a binary. But now it’s time to clarify that it’s both. It’s a binary in the sense that the awakening process has either begun or it hasn’t, and it’s a spectrum in the sense that once it has begun, it constitutes a spectrum with an indefinite number of points. It’s also important to note that this spectrum has several tipping points which we might call ‘stages of awakening’, as long as we understand that they don’t happen in the same order for everyone who undergoes them (and of course not everyone who awakens undergoes all of them). It’s also important to note that many people who believe they are awake have not yet even begun the actual awakening process. This misunderstanding occurs when people confuse understanding and believing in spiritual philosophy with awakeness, which is very common. This phenomenon is discussed in a subsequent chapter.

So what is awakening, if it’s not an experience or a specific kind of knowledge? It’s a paradigm shift that reconfigures the way you experience everything. It gets confused with a type of experience because there are often significant, even dramatic, experiential elements that accompany this paradigm shift. But these experiential elements are impermanent, whereas awakeness itself can become one’s permanent place of residence. How is this possible? Didn’t the Buddha teach that everything is impermanent? No, he taught that nirvāna is permanent, precisely because it’s not the presence of something, it’s the absence of something, namely delusion and confusion about the nature of reality and/or the nature of selfhood. Everything that comes into being passes away, of course, but something that can ceased to be can be gone forever. That’s why nirvāna literally means ‘cessation’. Delusion has ceased, and its cessation constitutes a different paradigm of being. But of course, for most people it doesn’t cease all at once (despite the mythic stories of ‘sudden enlightenment’): there can be a sudden discontinuity in the nature of experience that initiates the awakening process, but delusion is worn away slowly through a process of attrition driven by (the right kind of) spiritual practice.

So awakening accompanied by experiential fireworks and awakening accompanied by nothing much to write home about are the same in terms of where they land you. But where is that? While the discourse around the word ‘enlightenment’ (and the discourse of the spiritual marketplace) makes 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 but the clarity of vision that naturally results from that loss. In this sense, it can be compared to the surgery that removes a cataract from the eye.

Of course, what I’ve just said is an oversimplification, but it’s impossible to talk about this without oversimplifying. Whatever metaphor we use is in some way inadequate.

Now I’ll talk about four different versions of awakening, which can be seen as stages or tipping points in the process. Remember, our primary governing metaphor here, used by countless spiritual teachers, is that of waking up from a dream. Why is that the central metaphor? In a normal dream, you don’t know that you’re dreaming, and you don’t know that everything that’s happening is generated by your own mind. You don’t know that everyone in the dream is you, and so you feel fear when menaced by a villain or a monstrous creature, and you feel desire in relation to a sexy individual. But when you wake up from a literal dream, you realize its nature. You might contemplate the dream and even sift through it for potential insights, but you are no longer afraid or aroused or aggravated (though in the case of intense dreams, it can take some time for your nervous system to settle down upon awakening—which is also a salient part of this analogy). In some sense you now judge the dream as not being real, at least not in comparison to your current experience. In the same way, then, spiritual awakening shifts your relationship to the whole of reality. It doesn’t seem real in the way it did before, and it can no longer affect you in the way that it did. There’s also often an enormous sense of relief, as when waking up from a bad dream. But in some ways, spiritual awakening is not as analogous to physical awakening as it is to the transition into lucid dreaming. You’re still in the dream, but you know it’s a dream, so you know that everything is a manifestation of your consciousness, and there’s nothing to be afraid of, so you can basically do what you like and just enjoy the ride. But it’s also not like that, because if you take that metaphor too literally, then awakening is just the transition into solipsism, and that’s not what we’re talking about either. Whichever way we use the metaphor, it dead-ends at some point, and we have to admit that even the best metaphor can’t entirely capture what we’re talking about. So let’s transition to a different mode of description.

The purpose of trying to describe these versions or stages of awakening, despite the fact that it’s impossible to do so perfectly, is twofold: one, so that people who’ve undergone them will recognize that what they’ve undergone is in fact part of a universal process that is simply an intrinsic potentiality within human consciousness; and two, so that those who haven’t yet undergone them will be equipped with signposts so that, down the road, they will know that they’re not actually going crazy. For this is a universal process: though the details can vary, and elements of it are certainly mediated by the culturally-specific context in which awakening occurs, it’s a process that is possible for anyone in any culture to undergo. Some people need to hear about its possibility before the awakening process can begin, while for others, it just starts happening out of the blue.

The fact that this process can initiate itself spontaneously in just about anyone, including someone without prior exposure to the kinds of ideas found in this book, constitutes a profound mystery. I hope this mystery will become a central object of study for neuroscience, since the awakening process, for many people, also has physiological symptoms or side effects that indicate it is just as much a neurobiological process as a spiritual or psychological one.

Lastly, by presenting these versions or stages of awakening, I’m not claiming to offer a definitive or complete map, just a clear and useful one that covers much of the terrain in simple language.

First version/stage: waking up out of the socially constructed self. That is to say, waking up out of the belief that your thoughts, memories, self-images, or narratives about your life define you, delimit you, or even describe you. In other words, waking up out of the dream that the contents of thought have anything to do with what you fundamentally are. This entails seeing clearly that there is no concrete referent of the ‘I’ thought—that is to say, seeing that the concept of ‘me’ doesn’t actually point to anything but an ill-defined, largely fabricated (or confabulated), nebulous and contradictory idea of self; that is to say, a thought. A thought that somehow sits on top of, and veils, your deeper being. Like all the versions or stages of awakening, this realization is, in truth, non-conceptual, but it necessarily sounds conceptual when expressed in words.[1] Upon seeing that ‘me’ is a mental construct, one may react with sudden fear and resistance, or one may suddenly experience a state of pure being, which we could also call awareness-presence. Some traditions call this state of pure being free of self-image or self-consciousness ‘true self’ or the authentic referent of the ‘I’ concept.

Second version/stage: waking up out of unconscious conceptual overlay. That is to say, no longer projecting your concepts of things onto things without realizing that you’re doing so. This is simply the natural extension of the first stage. We could characterize it as the realization that just as you are not your story about yourself, no one else is your story about them, and the world is not your story about it. Nothing is your concept about it. Concepts might be useful pragmatically speaking, but nothing, not even the simplest thing like a table or a tree, is reducible to your concept of it. Eventually one realizes the implications of this: thoughts are tools, not truths. Even after having had this realization, getting out of the habit of unconscious conceptual overlay takes a long time.

Third version/stage: waking up out of the dream of separation. Having realized that everything is part of a process that always escapes your conceptualization of it (there are in truth only verbs, not nouns, one might say) and that all demarcations are mental constructs, one then sees that separation is itself a belief. Without the belief in separate self, it’s impossible to experience any kind of existential alienation. By shedding the belief that anything could actually be separate from you, you awaken to the always-already-existent truth of seamless unity with all that is. Though this particular version or stage of awakening is often glorified in the literature, because it tends to produce quite a lot of bliss and joy as a by-product, in actuality it’s just our natural state of being: seeing clearly without the filter of the culturally- and linguistically-conditioned mind. To be technically accurate, you don’t attain unity; you experientially recognize that you have never been separate from anything ever. Fully absorbing the implications of that is permanently paradigm-shifting.

Fourth version/stage: waking up out of the belief in (and sense of) ‘objective reality’. In this stage, the existence of an observer-independent universe of material objects is seen as an unnecessary postulation and it falls away, leaving one with the experience that all phenomena are nothing but forms of consciousness. This consciousness-that-is-all is not owned, meaning you couldn’t claim it as yours, but at the same time you’re nothing but it. Needless to say, this mode of experience is almost impossible to describe, and certainly even weirder than it sounds, until one acclimates to it.

Fifth version/stage: waking up to the ground of being. In this stage (though here we are way beyond anything that can be characterized in terms of stages), one directly senses that all phenomena are somehow held within, and made possible by, an infinitude of still silent spacious no-thing-ness. Some sense it as still silent presence, but an absolutely impersonal presence that is yet at the same time always closer than your own breath. All phenomena taken together are perceived to be like a tiny ripple on the surface of an ocean of infinite stillness. In this stage, one also has the felt-sense that everything that ever dies or dissolves does not in fact disappear, but rather merges back into the ground of being, from which it can emerge once again in the vast cycles of infinite time. This of course sounds like a belief because the felt-sense I’m talking about is here being clothed in words, but it’s nothing like a belief.

To reiterate, these five versions of awakening can happen to people in a different order than described here, and someone might only have one of these awakenings and not the others. And there are other ways of mapping this terrain as well. One traditional map presents what I’ve talked about here in just three stages, others teach many stages (including stages of integrating the above realizations into everyday life), and others declare that thinking of the awakening process in terms of stages is invalid. I think maps are valuable as long as you remember that map is not territory. Though that might seem obvious, the confusion of map with territory is commonplace: it’s what we call religious fundamentalism or any form of dogmatism.

I’ve tried to make clear here that these versions or stages of awakening don’t have the experiential quality of a download of knowledge or an attainment of any kind. They have the experiential quality of more and more being stripped away, leaving reality utterly laid bare, stark and yet somehow much more vivid. Ineffably shining. Some call it ‘naked awareness’.

Awakeness, then, is not another interpretation of reality that one acquires and then finds a way to reconcile with one’s existing knowledge. Taking all the versions mentioned above together and considering them as part of a single process, we can say awakening is a paradigm shift that obliterates all your stories and ideas about reality and launches you into an indescribable mode of being in which the only true knowing is predicated upon unknowing everything you ever thought you knew. This nonconceptual experiential knowing is a kind of spontaneous immediacy in which the distinction between knowing and being collapses, resulting in raw and vivid intimacy with absolutely everything, free of the need to understand or interpret it, and free of the need to accept or reject it.

When people hear this description, though, they imagine that this must constitute a kind of transcendental mindless state which couldn’t possibly be compatible with functioning in the world. But this is entirely untrue, and is a supposition based in a lack of direct experience of the paradigm shift alluded to here. “Free of the need to understand and interpret” and other such phrases doesn’t mean you don’t have thoughts, and it doesn’t mean you can’t utilize concepts as skillfully as anyone else. It just means that those thoughts and concepts are not determinative of your experience of reality. You are free of the compulsion to seek truth in mental representations of reality.

In the awakened mode, thoughts no longer constitute truths, but the best of them do constitute tools, and some of them are more effective than others. On this view, a thought that is more effective than another in a particular context can be considered truer, even though it isn’t ever literally true. Thus a person can be existing in the radically different paradigm described above and still function effectively in our complex society—after transiting through an adjustment period in which certain types of functioning (especially social interactions) can be temporarily impaired.

Having said this, it’s also the case that one who is awake to any significant degree will find that it’s now impossible continuing doing anything that feels untrue or ‘out of alignment’, for lack of a better phrase. You can no longer effectively lie to yourself. So some who enter the awakening process discover that they have been terribly unhappy with their marriage or their career but managed to convince themselves that that’s just life, and you’ve got to grin and bear it—and they no longer can. This is why, in some cases, a person’s life might seem to just fall apart in the early stages of awakening, and their friends and family are understandably concerned. But for some people, that is simply a necessary part of the process. This should not, of course, be taken to mean that someone’s life falling apart is itself evidence of awakening.

There’s something about this paradigm shift called awakening that compels you towards truth, sometimes almost against your will. You realize that there is such a thing as truth, though it’s not doctrinal or ideological, and there’s a sense of being compelled to discern its nature as best as one can, in all possible dimensions, whether or not what is discerned is ultimately even articulable.

I’ll conclude this chapter by resolving an apparent contradiction in this teaching. Awakening is, by its very nature, both sudden and gradual. It’s sudden in the sense that nonconceptual truth of any kind is necessarily seen all at once, but the process of integrating what one has realized into one’s psyche and one’s life is necessarily gradual.

Insights and realizations are the enjoyable part of this process. Integration is, for many, the hard part. But it is the process of integrating these profound insights into the nature of reality that is most thoroughly life-changing. Without integration, even powerful insights can just . . . fade away. And without a teacher and/or therapist to support integration, your realizations can be co-opted by the mind and turned into beliefs that bolster an inflated self-image or ‘spiritual ego’.

Most importantly (for those who care about the well-being of others, anyway), without integration, your awakening is unlikely to substantially benefit anyone else. It’s almost as if, having discovered the most exquisite fountain of beatific light within yourself, it can’t effectively flow out to uplift and benefit others until the psyche is brought into greater alignment with that light. This is just a metaphor, of course. But it does seem that everything needs to be recalibrated in light of what you’ve realized at each major stage of awakening. This recalibration can be very subtle in some respects and obvious in others, depending on the person. How does it happen? By looking at everything in your life and in your own psyche afresh, from the perspective of what’s been realized. If you’re truly willing to do that—and sometimes it isn’t easy because you’ll inevitably end up grieving the unconscious behaviors through which you have caused others pain—then transformation inevitably follows.

It is also important to point out about non conceptualized realization. A nonconceptual realization is one that takes place, one might say, in a subitist manner, that is to say, in the same way that one sees that the grass is green without having to think ‘green’, or that there are three objects without having to count them. This can happen spontaneously, or someone might point it out, and if you’re ripe for realization – meaning the ability to have your beliefs challenge, and integrate all your psyche and soul have accumulated over the years, you look and simply see that it’s true – not because someone pointed it out, that was indirect, but because you have integrated the lessons previously learned….all it needed was a push. (Here, ‘ripe for realization’ is a term of art that stands in for a mysterious aspect of this phenomenon of awakening.)

Just like you can’t change a computer program by banging on the screen, you can’t initiate the process of awakening by repetition of concepts alone; worst yet, to limit oneself to only one concept is the same as trying to put a puzzle together without all the main pieces.


Sofia Falcone

Sofia Falcone
I passionately believe one person can make a difference. I write from my own experiences and interests. It is my greatest hope that by writing about my own challenges and hopes, others may feel inspired to believe more in their inner power and to fully embrace themselves.

Reprinted on crystalwind.ca with written permission from Sofia Falcone. Do Not Copy!

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