(Part of a series on How to Awaken.)
This article lays the groundwork for the entire Spiritual Awakening for Geeks project by defining what I mean by spiritual awakening.
My Spiritual Journey
Before busting out my definition of spiritual awakening, I’ll set the stage by showing how my understanding of awakening has evolved over the course of my life. It has actually changed dramatically a number of times.
As a teenager and a young adult, I loved thunderstorms, fractals, and computers. I saw magic in nature, technology, and chaos theory. I saw myself primarily as a physical being existing in the natural world. Nature was my frame of reference for making sense of life, and science (the rational study of nature) was my unofficial religion. If I thought about spiritual awakening at all, it was with scientific skepticism.
I was also starting to become aware of awareness. I was perplexed about how awareness fit in with nature—but I wouldn’t find much support for exploring this further until about 20 years later.
In my late 20s, a self-help practice called Nonviolent Communication (NVC) grabbed my attention. This practice was created by psychologist Marshall Rosenberg, who was a student of humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers. The aim of NVC is to cultivate compassion by focusing attention on feelings and human needs.
After being parched dry by the relentless hyper-intellectual focus of computer science and Silicon Valley, NVC’s focus on emotions and relationships came as a welcome relief. I adopted NVC as my first spiritual practice, and I started seeing myself primarily as an emotional being existing in a relational world; feelings and needs became my new frame of reference for making sense of life. I viewed awakening as the process of learning to connect with feelings and needs and let go of patterns of thought and communication that keep us disconnected from our needs.
I started meditating in my 30s—mostly for stress reduction. Around the same time, I discovered the work of philosopher Ken Wilber. He expressed himself both in the language of science and psychology (which I was familiar with) and the language of mystical spirituality (which was new to me). His work bridged those two cultures, making a personal exploration of mysticism possible for me for the first time in my life.
I was captivated by Wilber’s work; I consumed it voraciously. His Integral Theory (which unites science, psychology, and mysticism) became my new frame of reference for making sense of life. I started viewing myself as an evolving consciousness existing on a mystical ground of being, and I started viewing awakening the recognition of that ground. I didn’t understand that ground, but I was determined to make sense of it and experience it for myself. On Wilber’s advice, I turned to the world’s mystical traditions for guidance.
In my early 40s, after floundering around for a few years exploring several mystical traditions that weren’t a good match, I finally discovered the Karma Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. I was delighted by the simplicity and clarity of the teachings of this lineage. I soon started exploring them deeply—first through a local practice center, then later through the published work of Buddhist teacher Ken McLeod.
Over the course of three years, I investigated my sense of self and the nature of subjective experience through various meditation practices intended to foster insight. This work uprooted my remaining materialist biases and shifted my sense of self; the work was exciting, invigorating, and sometimes disturbing. My frame of reference shifted to the mysterious, perfect, luminous union of awareness and subjective experience, which I viewed as the ultimate ground of being. I recognized “self” and all conceptual frames of reference as simply arisings in (and as) that ground, and I viewed awakening as the recognition of that ground. Intuitive knowing became my guide, and my intellect became a servant of my intuition.
In 2014, at the age of 46, I attended a Buddhist Geeks conference and met meditation instructor Kenneth Folk. One of my aims in attending this conference was to find teachers to give me feedback on my practice. After about five minutes of conversation, Kenneth told me he could see where my practice had gotten stuck. I was flustered by this comment; I didn’t understand what he meant. I suspected that either he had a defect in his practice, or a misunderstanding had arisen between us.
Later that night, as I was getting ready for bed, my attention returned to what Kenneth had said. Intent on being completely honest with myself, with a sense of foreboding, I used a simple insight practice to look closely at the only place where my practice could possibly be stuck: the union of awareness and experience. Within about five seconds, I recognized that I’d become attached to this frame of reference because I’d become identified with the concept (and experience) of awareness.
I thought I’d transcended identification with all concepts of self through the insight practices that I’d done over the years—but I realized that my identity had lived on, hidden in plain sight within the luminous quality of every experience. My identification with awareness had given rise to a telltale fundamentalist zeal and defensiveness about my preferred frame of reference; Kenneth had probably picked up on this during our brief conversation.
The insight practice that I did that night ripped away my identity, leaving me feeling disturbed and disembodied for a few hours. However, I woke up the next morning feeling surprisingly relaxed and free. I could now see the union of awareness and experience as simply another frame of reference—a conceptual map, lens, or filter, with an associated set of experiences.
This left me with some unanswered questions: what am I, and what is life? I realized that I knew for sure that I didn’t know, and I would never know—so I could let go of my quest for ultimate truth. I’ve found that this has freed up my energy, allowing me to respond more flexibly and creatively to life. I still see the union of awareness and experience as a useful frame of reference, but I no longer view it (or any other frame of reference) as ultimate.
My Understanding of Awakening
So, which of the above shifts in consciousness were real spiritual awakenings? In my opinion, all of them were important awakenings because spiritual awakening, as I define it, is the evolution of consciousness toward greater wisdom and compassion. As we awaken, we grow both more empowered and more likely to use our power for good. We grow both more able and more willing to serve the well-being of all.
This definition of awakening is intentionally quite broad. In some spiritual traditions, the term awakening is used more specifically—to refer to the attainment of particular states of mind or particular levels of development. I prefer to define awakening as a process of evolution (rather than an attainment); this demystifies awakening (by allowing it to be defined in terms that everyone can understand) and democratizes it (by allowing everyone to view awakening as something we’ve been participating in all our lives).
Of course, having terminology to refer to particular states of mind and levels of development is also important and useful (and I intend to define additional terms as needed). However, in my opinion, it’s important for a spiritual path to be grounded in down-to-earth intentions that can be understood by all and that are clearly connected to human needs. Otherwise, we risk becoming mere consciousness technicians, aspiring toward abstract goals that are disconnected from compassion.
The Many Aspects of Awakening
As I see it, awakening involves many lines of human development; I’ve listed some of them below. (I don’t intend this to be a complete list.)
As we awaken:
- Our attention may grow stronger; we may become less subject to distraction.
- Our will may grow stronger; we may become less driven by impulse and habit.
- Our perception may grow clearer; we may perceive life more fully and more vividly.
- Our cognition may become more powerful, less biased, more flexible, and more discerning.
- Our sense of self may shift as we recognize misperceptions about ourselves.
- Our intuition may grow more accurate and accessible.
- Our vitality may increase.
- Our psychological health may improve.
- Our emotional center of gravity may shift (from anxiety toward peace of mind, for instance).
- Our emotional and social intelligence may increase.
- Our morality may shift (from egocentric concern for our own well-being toward concern for the well-being of successively larger and more diverse groups).
This implies that there are many aspects of awakening, there are many degrees of awakening, it’s possible to be more awake in some ways than in others, and it’s possible for our degree of awakening to fluctuate over time. For instance, in my case, even though I believe I’ve experienced some important awakenings, I still “fall asleep” (and re-awaken) regularly, and I imagine (and hope!) that there may be many more awakenings ahead for me.
I’ve often encountered a different, more monolithic view of awakening: the view that awakening is all-or-nothing (either you’re awake or you’re not), permanent (once awake, always awake), and absolute (those who have awakened can do no wrong). To me, this view of awakening seems dangerously simplistic.
By adopting the view that awakening involves multiple lines of development and that an individual who is highly evolved on some lines may simultaneously be quite unevolved on other lines, we can make sense of some seemingly bizarre phenomena that show up on a regular basis—for instance, highly credentialed spiritual teachers who regularly abuse and take advantage of their students. (In these cases, we might suspect deficiencies in their psychological health, emotional intelligence, social intelligence, and/or moral development—while still allowing for high levels of development in other lines.)
The Diverse Faces of Awakening
If spiritual awakening is a process of evolution, then we can define a spiritual awakening as a step in that process. A spiritual awakening is a qualitative (rather than a quantitative) shift in consciousness—usually, a shift that’s experienced for the first time. For instance, strengthening one’s attention can be an important aspect of awakening—but when my attention gets a bit stronger, I probably wouldn’t call that a spiritual awakening. However, if my newfound strength of attention allows me to witness my stream of thoughts for the first time (without getting distracted by their content), I might call that a spiritual awakening.
It can be difficult to imagine what a given qualitative shift in consciousness will be like until we have actually experienced it. For this reason, the awakenings that we have not yet experienced tend to seem mysterious and alluring—and conversely, the awakenings that we have already experienced tend to seem mundane. To a meditator who is trying to let go of attachment to all frames of reference, it may not seem like much of a spiritual awakening when someone in a 12-step recovery program puts their faith in a higher power for the first time; however, in my view, both of these can be important and authentic forms of awakening.
Do all spiritual paths lead to the same destination? Yes and no. To the extent that any spiritual path is authentic, it will tend to foster awakening. However, different traditions emphasize different spiritual practices, which affect different lines of development (and attract different types of practitioners). For instance, some traditions emphasize love and compassion, others emphasize insight and clarity, and others emphasize energy and vitality. This means that awakening can look and feel quite different in different spiritual traditions.
Awakened Relationships, Cultures, and Social Systems
So far, I’ve been discussing awakening in relation to individuals. I believe it’s also important to consider awakening in broader terms. Can relationships, cultures, and social systems become more awakened? Sure, why not? Consider the following generalized definition: spiritual awakening is the evolution of consciousness, relationships, cultures, and social systems toward greater ability and propensity to serve the well-being of all.
My focus here has been on individual consciousness—but there’s no reason to limit ourselves to individuals. If we want to be really effective in serving the well-being of all, it will be important to foster awakened relationships, cultures, and social systems, too.
I’ve adopted the terminology of lines, levels, and states from philosopher Ken Wilber’s AQAL Integral Theory. His work has also influenced my views on the evolution of consciousness.
In an interview on Beyond Awakening (on September 13, 2014), meditation instructor Kenneth Folk describes how he applies Ken Wilber’s concept of quadrants to spiritual awakening; these ideas informed the views expressed in the section “Awakened Relationships, Cultures, and Social Systems.”
(Read the next article in this series: About This Path.)