WHAT IS "SPIRITUAL AWAKENING"?
A brief user's guide to the ultimate experience
What is “Spiritual Awakening”? 10 Key Ideas (in Plain English)
A brief user’s guide to the ultimate experience
What is “Spiritual Awakening”?
These two words often bring to mind others like “enlightenment,” “Self-Realization,” “union with God,” and several others.
For some individuals, “spiritual awakening” means a profound and life-changing experience. It’s direct knowledge, not secondhand. It’s “seeing for yourself.” It can result in a transformative insight into life, the universe, yourself, and everything else.
Mild versions might be described as an “aha” experience. Stronger versions might be described as something roughly like swallowing a live hand grenade with the pin pulled, but one that explodes indescribable beauty, joy, and an immeasurable rich appreciation for life.
Whether it’s an inner “pop” or as a stunning, thermonuclear-level insight, it’s much more than mere intellectual deduction or mere problem-solving, by orders of magnitude. It involves the very ground of our identities. Even the ideas of “peak experiences” or moments of “Flow” - often touted as hallmarks of meaning, happiness, and sanity – can fall far short of capturing it.
But what, exactly, is going on here?
This can be a complex topic. It’s understandable. The issues at stake, after all, aren’t exactly a spoonful of peas. They’re at the heart of The Big Questions of life: the most fundamental questions we can ask about the most important topics we can wrap our heads around: God, the universe, ourselves, the point of all this madness, and pretty much everything else.
It’s no small enchilada. There is a flood of confusion and misunderstanding on the topic.
But luckily, your trusty LiveReal Agents are on the case.
We’ve been working to clarify, summarize and simplify the matter, in ten bite-sized, juicy nuggets. There’s plenty more to it than what’s presented here, but this, hopefully, is a good start.
We can begin with what seems to be the most popular and vivid metaphor for spiritual awakening these days: a movie that beautifully and harshly illustrates the idea of “spiritual awakening.”
1) It’s waking up from “The Matrix.”
“What is The Matrix?”
“It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth."
“What truth?” – Neo (and the rest of us) may ask.
“That you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else, you were born into bondage. Born into a prison that you cannot smell or taste or touch. A prison for your mind.”
The Matrix is a modern myth that illustrates a basic idea very well: what each of us calls “normal life” is a kind of illusion. The world isn’t what we think it is. We ourselves aren’t what we think we are. In the (original) movie, “regular guy” Thomas Anderson, who sees himself as a meaningless cog in a big machine. (As it turns out, he’s more correct than he knows.) In time, he “wakes up” and discovers that he’s actually quite unique. In fact, he is Neo: “The One.”
The implication? We’re all “Thomas Anderson.”
And so, we’re all, potentially, a “Neo.”
This isn’t saying we’re all bullet-dodging, Kung Fu-fighting Jesus figures. But it does point to the idea that we might be more than just meaningless blobs of genes in cubicles. The question is whether or not each of us will realize our potential (see #6) and become our own version of Neo.
This might all sound a bit far out. But certain folks – like Einstein, for one – might well have agreed. Several thousand years ago, back at the origins of Western civilization, Plato laid out what is essentially the same story. The Matrix is basically Plato’s Cave in story form, plus special effects, sunglasses, and guns. Lots of guns.
And while we’re talking movies, there’s the idea of escaping Groundhog Day, or becoming a real human in Free Guy, or clocking out from The Truman Show, and plenty of others.
Stories are often the most vivid vehicles for conveying the idea of spiritual awakening. But there are more straightforward ways to approach it, such as the way of “happiness.”
2) The “pursuit of happiness,” and beyond
Some describe spiritual awakening as it relates to happiness: the search for – and finding of – “IT”.
“Happiness” in this sense can be defined as our sense of “what we all ultimately want.” It’s our ultimate aim. We can’t not want it. It’s an end, not a means to an end. We don’t want happiness in order to get rich; we want to get rich because we think it’ll make us happy. Aristotle, The Dalai Lama, and many others have made this basic idea of happiness central to understanding the human experience.
So, we’re all searching for “IT”. Not just “happiness” as a warm fuzzy or a good ice cream code, but some kind of final, ultimate, perfect happiness. It’s something not tied to external conditions. It’s something more antifragile.
To be clear, the “happiness” of spiritual awakening might be different from the conventional definitions of happiness some of us might imagine. A toddler’s definition of happiness might literally be unlimited ice cream, for example. (Some adults might define it the same way.) But a toddler can’t grasp the experience and pleasures of an adult. In the same way, the “happiness” spiritual awakening delivers might be something equally unexpected. Zen teacher Richard Rose, when asked if he was happy, replied, “I’m beyond happiness.”
3) It’s best defined by what it isn’t.
Spiritual awakening might be defined as the opposite of “sleepwalking through life”
Or, it’s the opposite of being “lost in a state of illusion” (see The Matrix above).
It’s often compared to blindness verses seeing properly: no longer seeing or knowing reality “through a glass darkly,” for example, but “face-to-face.” It’s compared to a kind of existential geography, where it’s no longer living in “The Shadowlands” (C. S. Lewis.) It’s waking up from a kind of “hypnosis of life,” or a spell that’s been cast on us since birth, one we’re usually unaware of. It’s seeing reality as it is.
“If the doors of perception were cleansed
everything would appear to man as it is,
- William Blake
When someone asked Buddha what he was, he reportedly said, “I am awake.” If there’s truth to that, then it means most of the rest of us, by comparison, are asleep.
4) Imitations reveal it.
If there are imitations of something, that in itself can serve as evidence that that “something” exists. Thousands of imitations are even stronger evidence.
Drugs and alcohol, by some accounts, get their power by offering us brief, partial glimpses of spiritual awakening. They’re sometimes described as ways to “steal a taste of heaven.” But they can come at a steep price.
“I’ll die young,
but it’s like kissing God.”
- Lenny Bruce
What’s the attraction to gambling, extreme sports, cults and certain political causes, a thousand varieties of addiction, and just about everything else we get obsessed with? They work, perhaps, by serving up easy, bite-sized tastes of spiritual awakening. They’re substitutes, of course, and so they all fall short of “the real thing,” eventually. But in the meantime, sometimes it can seem (mistakenly) like they’re the closest we have, so they’ll have to do. As Bruce Marshall said, “the young man who rings the bell at the brothel is unconsciously looking for God.”
If there were no real gold, there wouldn’t be Fool’s Gold.
5) It’s activating and connecting with the deepest part of ourselves
We all likely have a sense of “not being ourselves.” Sometimes it’s pretending to be something we aren’t, or being uncomfortable in our own skin. Sometimes we say or do something in a fit of anger or despair, and say afterward, “that wasn’t me.”
But this can also work in the opposite direction. There are moments when we’re not ourselves, but there are also moments when we’re somehow more ourselves. Most of us have experienced moments when we feel more connected with the deepest part of ourselves. We “let down,” stop pretending, and express at least a little more of “who we really are.” We lower a mask (or sometimes, we have a mask ripped from us.) All of this is a key ingredient of gripping drama. We find this kind of thing fascinating. This kind of moment might happen only for a few moments, or to a tiny degree, compared to the posing and pretending we do much of the rest of the time.
And here, we can ask: “So, how deep can this go?”
Let’s say we can “connect with the deepest part of ourselves” up to a volume level of 7 or 8. Is there an option to “connect with the deepest part of ourselves up to a volume level of 11?
Something about this idea often resonates with many of us on an intuitive level. Yet there are hazards here. Without self-knowledge and a few healthy dollops of humility, this kind of thing can easily become narcissism, ego-glorification, self-absorption, ego-inflation, or a pose of “I’ve dropped all my masks” as a new kind of mask. But at its best, it’s a genuine connection with “the Beyond Within,” our “Original Nature” (Zen), or “conscience.”
6) It’s making “human potential,” human actual.
If we own a Ferrari we only drive in first gear, it seems safe to say that this particular Ferrari isn’t “living up to its potential.”
We could also imagine a skyscraper with dozens of floors, yet only the bottom level is in use. The rest of the building lies vacant and empty.
Most human beings, some say, are like this Ferrari or skyscraper. The basic idea is that we have a vast but hidden repository of pleasures and energies that often lie either untapped or wasted in the usual course of life, unless we make deliberate efforts to make use of them.
In this sense, spiritual awakening means “making use of them,” so every drop of our potential gets put to use.
7) It’s the final stage of human development.
Some describe awakening as the aim or goal of human life. This description is largely a developmental perspective. It could be similar to the way a rose bush “aims for” a rose blossom. If the process of growth goes well, it winds up here. For a caterpillar, the final stage of development is a caterpillar. For a human being, according to this perspective, the final stage of development is spiritual awakening.
Infants grow into toddlers, who grow into children, who grow into teenagers, who (sometimes) grow into adults. But what comes after normal adulthood? Is old age and death all that’s left to look forward to?
According to this perspective, the answer is “no.” There’s more. There is further development beyond the stage of conventional, mundane adulthood. It’s a stage of development that’s internal, or “spiritual.” And it’s voluntary, not mandatory. The basic dynamic leads toward maturity. In this sense, it’s “the meaning of life.” It can be seen as the “goal” or “aim” of human development. In some ways, it might be understood as more biological than spiritual. The way an acorn matures into an oak, we can mature as well. If an individual “becomes what one is” to the fullest possible extent, that road will lead to a state of “spiritual awakening.”
It’s a process involving several transformations. The overall process seems roughly like going from 1) not-having-a-self to 2) being self-centered to being 3) self-less. Selflessness or egolessness, among other things, means getting out of our own way: we stop living with one foot on the gas and the other foot on the brake. This frees us up to live as an expression of something greater than we are. In acts of courage, for example, someone “selflessly” ignores the safety or survival of their own “self,” and seems willing to die (for a good reason.) Whenever we see thing, something in us instinctively and automatically admires it, and finds it inspiring.
8) It’s the “ground” of our experience.
This aspect of spiritual awakening points less to what we’re climbing toward, more to what we’re climbing on.
This points not just to what lies at the top of the ladder. It’s also the ladder itself. Or, even more: it’s the ground that the ladder sits on. (Both Ken Wilber and Wittgenstein referred to this kind of “ladder” metaphor.)
In this sense, spiritual awakening points not only toward the transcendent, but also the immanent. It’s not only the Beyond, but also the Within. In this sense, it’s our “Original Nature,” or that “in which we live, and move, and have our being.” It’s closer to us that “the vein in our neck.” It’s just that usually, we aren’t aware of it. Like water to a fish, it’s so obvious that we miss it. It’s like Dorothy’s magic slippers: as it turns out, what we were searching for was with us the entire time. We just didn’t know how to use it, or how to make that potential, actual (ala #6).
9) It’s “ultimate psychological health”
What is “psychological health”? We could talk about ultimate “sanity,” or mental clarity and emotional strength, or “existential fitness.” We could talk about freedom from anxiety, depression, addictions, panic attacks, toxic stress, compulsions, various “disorders,” and etc.
In contemporary mainstream psychology, there is no clear, simple, universally agreed-upon definition of “psychological health” or “sanity.” There are scores of ways to do things wrong, it seems, but barely any ways to get things right. We hardly even have a definition of even physical health. (And physical health, compared to psychological health, might be an easier topic to grasp, by an order of magnitude.)
Yet at the same time, we all have a sense of it. If we stop torturing ourselves with slippery, hyperintellectual definitions, and instead refer to the (currently unfashionable) common sense, we can realize that we actually have a real sense of it. And maybe that’s all we need for now.
We can intuit it. How? Well, one way is to examine our own direct experiences of clarity and delusion. “Sanity” can mean “a state of being in touch with reality.” This view presumes that reality exists, and that we can be in touch with it, despite what the postmodern nihilists say.
All of this can paint a certain picture: on the negative side, it can be seen as a state of freedom from dysfunctional anxiety, fear, anger, hopelessness, envy, guilt, shame, hatred, and other toxic conditions. On the positive side, Maslow might have gotten closest to this, in tagging something along these lines as “self-actualization.”
10) It’s what religions are trying to point us toward.
Some describe spiritual awakening as central to all major religious traditions. It lies at the origin and heart of the matter. Religions can’t be understood without it.
It's sometimes referred to as “contemplative” spirituality, or experiential spirituality. It serves as the essential ingredient that makes the difference between a stale, dreary, lifeless pile of dogmas on the one hand, verses, on the other, a rich, vital, and deeply lucid source of sanity and clarity, a “life more abundant.”
Without this aspect, religions can stop making sense, and can disintegrate into mere social and political clubs, carrying on with old habits and half-understood ideas that nobody actually believes or understands.
But is this perspective really valid? Is there really some sort of contemplative core of spiritual awakening that lies not at the fringes, but at the heart of what is genuine in religion?
This one will take some unpacking.
Do religions really point us in this direction?
If we can assume that we shouldn't use the worst possible representatives as our reference points, and that religions aren’t just about old songs and pancake breakfasts, then we can ask what they really are about. The answer here could well be that they’re ultimately about spiritual awakening.
Granted, the history of religion isn’t a track record of one successful enlightenment story after another. The course of these things never does run smooth. But in its defense, it’s been tasked with a pretty tough job. At least part of the core objective is the transformation of the individual self: turning potential jerks into human beings, and human beings into saints and sages.
That said, according to some perspectives, awakening experiences playing central roles in the origins of all major religious traditions. These traditions still refer to and draw on this basic dynamic, each using different words.
The words themselves, of course, are different. They often use different labels for the same thing, and sometimes the same labels for different things. But this doesn’t mean they actually disagree on the truth of the matter.
If I’m hungry, someone might describe that state as hambriento in Spanish, faim in French, hungrig in German, njaa in Swahili, and so on.
These words, everyone agrees, are different. But whatever you call it, the single underlying truth remains: I’m still hungry. Call it whatever you want. Some might say there’s a difference between “hungry” and “famished.” Fine: that’s correct. There’s plenty of room for endless hair-splitting, for those who enjoy that kind of thing. For the rest of us, there’s an underlying reality there, however you label it. ("Will somebody just give me a hot dog, please?")
To be clear, on the other side, none of this flattens all religions down into one single, monotonous, Borg casserole. It doesn’t mean that “all religions are the same” any more than “all languages are the same.” Religious traditions are different in important ways. There’s as little need to merge them into one (as if that were even possible) as there is to merge all languages into one. Differences, of course, keep things interesting and fun, and variety is more important than spice. That said, some aspects of human nature are universal, in the way grammar is universal. In this sense, spiritual awakening might be better described as a psychological process (psyche/logos – “science of the soul”) than a strictly spiritual one.
At any rate, here are some brief overviews of how some of the major religions approach spiritual awakening.
Hinduism has a rich and extensive vocabulary for spiritual awakening. “Self-Realization,” for example, might be the most basic term. Other terms are moksha, vimoksha, mukti, or just plain “Liberation.” The essential process is one where the individual self (atman) overcomes ignorance or illusion about the self and the nature of reality (maya, phenomenal existence, that which has been measured out from the Immeasurable) in order to realize the Absolute (Brahman).
This is often described as reaching samadhi, or “ecstasy.” While some awakening experiences are experienced as temporary “glimpses” beyond the veil (nirvikalpa samadhi), others describe a state of living in a permanent, ongoing state of awakening is called sahaja samadhi.
While there are many schools of Buddhism with different approaches, they generally agree on what is possibly the most clear-cut example of spiritual awakening: the story of Buddha. In a nutshell: a relatively normal guy embarks on a quest to answer The Big Questions. After many years of intense searching, he eventually has an awakening or “enlightenment” experience under a tree. After that experience, he said, “I am awake.”
Buddhism describes a fully awakened being as an arahant. An arahant or Buddha has achieved Nirvana or Bodhicitta: Enlightened, or Awakened Consciousness, or Buddhahood. Enlightenment is awakening to the Dharmakaya, or Mind. (Note the capital “M” there. It’s important. Same with “self” and “Self” in Hinduism. Little letter, big difference.) This involves, among other things, a freedom from suffering, and an overcoming or “extinction” of ego, the core ignorance or illusion (desire for separateness) that imprisons us. (Einstein, interestingly enough, also referenced a “core delusion” that imprisoned us.) Zen emphasizes that Mind is always with us, in some form, perhaps unconsciously: it’s our “Original Nature.” The key is to realize it, or make it real. Yes: Live Real.
“The Way” of Taoism emphasizes living in harmony with the “Tao” – the source, pattern, and substance of everything that exists. (That might sound like “The Force” from Star Wars, that apple might not be entirely far from a tree.) Steve Taylor describes the term ming as being closest to wakefulness, a state in which you “realize your true nature” in such a way that “your life becomes a spontaneous expression” of the Tao. A famous quote from Chauang-tzu is “Be empty: that is all.” The basic idea is that you simply “allow the Dao (Tao) to act through you.” This results in a state of active but spontaneous non-effort, or wu-wei. (“Self-emptying” or kenosis is also a concept in Christianity.)
Sufism is often described as “Islamic mysticism” or “the inward dimension of Islam.” Fana is a term for a temporary experience of awakening in which a person’s identity (ego) fades, leaving only the sacred, or divine radiance (see nirvikalpa samadhi from Hindiusm, above). Meanwhile, baqaa (or “abiding in God”) is a more stable and ongoing variant of fana (which parallels sahaja samadhi in Hinduism, as mentioned above). It refers to a state of “abiding in God or “the summit of the mystical manazil, that is, the destination or the abode.”
Spiritual awakening can be described and understood as a direct experience of “God.” The Torah describes several accounts of this. The story of Job, for example, could be understood as an awakening experience. In this story, a good individual experience horrific suffering for no apparent reason. He wonders why, through it all, what possible reason there could be for so much seemingly pointless anguish.
In the end, Job has a “conversation with God” – a spiritual experience – that reveals to him the “why.” We can read that “answer” in raw poetry form. We might find that answer satisfying, or not. We have the luxury of reading about it instead of going through it ourselves, or “learning the hard way.” But it satisfied Job.
Many other characters also had direct experiences – from Jacob wrestling with the angel, to Moses and Abraham, to many of the kings and prophets. The Torah itself is based on Revelation. Revelation is God revealing himself to human beings – or, from our perspective, humans “awakening” to a revelation of divinity.
The Kabbalah also plays a significant role for some individuals. While it isn’t universally embraced within Judaism, it holds the ultimate aim as union with God, or En Sof (“without end”). In the Zohar, this state is called devekut (“cleaving to the divine”) and is described as a state of mental stillness, awe, and ecstasy.
Is there a concept of “spiritual awakening” in Christianity?
Christianity as a whole is often accused of having little or no contemplative tradition. These accusations aren’t entirely without merit. But closer inspection reveals a wealth of references to spiritual awakening.
Many are hidden in plain sight. They’re often disguised under words that have often been ruined or watered down by misuse. Yet anyone who pushes through that can discover some hidden but rich underground mines of insight. Not to mention that here as well, “revelation” is the basis of the entire tradition.
Stories of direct experiences of spiritual awakening – from Saul on the road to Damascus to others such as Augustine, Pascal or C. S. Lewis – are well known. Scores of references to “wakefulness” are woven throughout the New Testament: “watch over,” “awake, sleeper,” “keep watching” “keep awake then and watch at all times,” “…let us not sleep as others do, but let us be alert and sober,” “be on the alert,” “it is already the hour for you to awaken from sleep,” and etc.
Christianity (and other traditions) points to a spiritual component of human nature (something explored here and here.) This faculty – we could call it the “conscience,” or the “law written in the heart” - seems to have the ability to become activated under certain conditions. This dynamic is sometimes described as “reversing the Fall” of Adam and Eve or overcoming original sin (a version of “escaping The Matrix”). It’s described as “putting aside the old man” (Adam) and turning instead to the “new man” (or, depending on the translation, the “old self” and the “new self,” “nature,” etc.) There’s “putting on the mind of Christ” or going through a “second birth” (a term that’s often been misused.) There are passages such as “If your eye be single, then your whole body filled with light,” which seems to refer directly to en-light-enment. Saint Athanasius, one of the Church Fathers, taught that “God became Man so that Man might become God.” Some theologians describe essentially a psychological dynamic: a process of getting confirmed, then justified, then sanctified. Being “sanctified” can mean theosis, an Easter Orthodox idea where humans “take on divine properties.” This could all culminate in an experience of “unio mystico,” or union with God.
After writing the massive Summa Theologica, which became a cornerstone of Christian philosophy and theology, Aquinas had an awakening experience. After that, he said, “All I have written is like chaff to me.”
All of these are just a few brief thumbnails.
The above, of course, is whatever the opposite of “comprehensive” is. For deeper dives, some good resources are Forgotten Truth by Huston Smith, some books by Ken Wilber, Beyond the Power of Now by L. Ron Gardner, Awakening by Anurag Shantam, and The Leap by Steve Taylor, Ph.D., referenced above, for starters.
These and other resources convey the idea that spiritual awakening exists, it’s a good thing, and it’s worth searching for.
But to be clear: if the above is on target, it’s not something we should start searching for.
We’re already searching for it.
We might think we want the cool shoes, when what we really want is respect. In the same way, we might think we want all kinds of things. But what we really and ultimately want, perhaps, is what we find in an experience of spiritual awakening.
If that’s the case, then it’s a matter of getting clear on exactly what we really do want – and then searching in places where it’s more likely to be found, and not less likely.
Generally speaking, it’s more likely to be found in running some experiments, for example, than at the bottom of a whiskey bottle. It’s more likely to be found by knowing yourself through a process of inner work than by wandering aimlessly through an Existential No-Man’s Zone.
Beyond that point, it might be a matter of how much effort, energy, and inner work we put into it.
If we really want to Wake Up, then maybe the basic process is basically in doing everything possible to set some sort of existential alarm clocks. However we can.
And maybe that alarm clock is already ringing, if we can only hear it. Maybe the sound of it is annoying at first. But once we shake off the grog and hear it more clearly, maybe the sound is actually pretty beautiful.
Maybe the world, right now, is saying, very clearly, your own version of, “Wake up, Neo. The Matrix has you.”
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