It would seem that in our current age more people are waking up than ever before in the history of mankind. It’s hard to know whether there is indeed an increase in awakening, or if it’s just become more noticeable, more acceptable to talk about it. But perhaps the very fact that it’s become so acceptable is itself a sign that it’s actually occurring with greater frequency.
But I think there’s a bit of confusion between what it means to be in a process of awakening and to be fully and completely awake. And I should interject here that I’m not fully awake, so this is a topic which I’m not fully qualified to speak on. But what I can say is that I am in the process of awakening, and I have been in this process for much of my life. I’ve also observed others around me who seem to be going through a similar process. But what I sometimes see are those who claim to be fully awakened, when clearly they are not, and that’s really what brings me to speak about this topic.
I think many of us have an overly romanticized idea about spiritual awakening. We often imagine it to be something sudden and spontaneous. And perhaps it does occur in that way for some. I really can’t say, because it hasn’t been that way for me. What I’ve observed in myself, as well as in many others, is that it’s often a very long gradual process.
Now that process may begin with something sudden and spontaneous. We might have a sudden epiphany or insight. We might undergo a sudden shift in our perception. Perhaps we have a traumatic experience which causes us to question the very purpose and meaning of life. Perhaps we’ve experimented with psychedelics which revealed to us that we’re not merely confined to this psychical form. Or perhaps we saw a video on the internet, and all of a sudden we understand that all of these social constructs, the political and economic systems, the religious institutions; that all of this is an illusion, a sort of collective insanity. And that moment can be very potent. We might suddenly realize that we’ve been asleep this whole time. And in that sudden realization we might mistakenly think that we have completely woken up. I hear people all the time say that they’re awake, but I want to emphasize that there is a distinct difference between the state of waking and the state of being fully awake. I would say that for most of us that initial moment, that sudden shift in perception, is an initiation into the awakening process. It’s like being shaken out of your sleep. But even after we begin to open our eyes we may still be in a bit of a haze.
If we confuse that awakening as being fully awake, then we can actually hinder the process, because we stop right there and go no further. Imagine you realize one day that your house is a mess and that many of the things you’ve been collecting are unnecessary. You have a sudden epiphany that you don’t need all of these things. But then what? If you stop right there, and just sit back down in your chair, the house remains a mess. It’s not enough to simply acknowledge the mess. Now you’ve got to begin cleaning.
So with awakening we might have a sudden realization, but after that realization comes the real work. And that can take a long time for some depending on how much attention we’re willing to give to it.
My awakening began in late childhood. I don’t recall my exact age, but I was probably about ten years old when my perception underwent a significant shift. And in the time since I have experienced a number of sporadic shifts in awareness, moments of disillusionment and moments of clarity. But then I have a tendency to fall back into old familiar patterns of thought, behavior and social conditioning. So it comes in waves, and the waves rise and fall. But each time I become more and more aware. And the more awareness there is, the more I realize that there is still so much to process, so much more clutter that needs to be cleared.
I think it’s important to recognize that awakening is a gradual process for most of us, and to embrace that process with patience. We can be so eager to be fully awake that either we become overwhelmed by how much work there is to do, or we fool ourselves into believing that the work is finished, when actually we’re just avoiding the work, denying or repressing the ego, the shadow self, the subconscious mechanisms. And when we’re denying that part of ourselves, rather than bringing awareness to it, were actually lulling ourselves back into a dream state. The real work of awaking is to acknowledge everything that’s going on inside of us. We don’t transcend the ego simply by burying it, but by delving into it and coming to fully understand it’s nature. And the reason why this can be such a long and difficult process is because there’s so much resistance there. We don’t want to look at it. We would rather it just go away. And we can easily convince ourselves that ego has dissolved, but that’s just what the ego wants you to believe. It’s a bit of a trickster in that way.
So again, I think it’s important not to romanticize awakening as something always spontaneous and spectacular. And we can look to some of the most well-known self-realized persons as examples of how awakening may be a gradual process.
Perhaps the best example is that of the historical Buddha. Now, I’m talking about Siddhartha Gautama who lived some 2500 years ago, but there have been many buddhas throughout time. Buddha simply means “one who is awake.” Siddhartha Gautama is simply one of the more well recognized buddhas in history. And we tend to think that his awakening was a very sudden occurrence, but actually, if we look at his life we see that it was a gradual process.
Before he was a buddha, Siddhartha was a prince who had been living a very sheltered life. His father had arranged that he should not see or experience anything disturbing, and he went to great lengths to insure this. But as Siddhartha grew older he became anxious to leave the palace and to see the city that he was to later rule over. His father arranged a parade that would take him through the most beautiful part of the city, and he set guards along the street to keep out anyone who was not young, beautiful and healthy. But there was an old man who had crept up to catch a glimpse of the prince as he went by on his chariot, and the prince caught sight of him as well.
Siddhartha turned to his companion and asked why the man looked so strange. His companion explained to him that the man was old, and that everyone grows old. This was all very new to Siddhartha and it awoke a curiosity within him. It was also at that moment that the guards noticed the old man and escorted him away from the crowd. Siddhartha followed after them and found himself wandering around in an impoverished part of the city where there were many people who were old as well as diseased. Seeing those who were diseased he again inquired why they appeared so strange. His companion explained to him that these people were sick, and that everyone becomes sick at some point in life. As Siddhartha continued his exploration of the city he came upon the cremation grounds where a body was being burned. It was there that his companion explained to him that everyone dies, and that death is an inevitable part of life.
Seeing all of this was a profound realization for Siddhartha. He experienced a sudden shift in his perception. The world was not as he had believed. Life was not as he had believed. And now he saw that there was so much suffering in life. And in witnessing the suffering of others, he felt great suffering in himself. This was the beginning of his awakening. And it was then that he vowed to find an end to suffering.
Against his fathers wishes, he left the palace and renounced his royalty. He went to live in the forest with the ascetics who practiced extreme austerities. They were pursuing an end to suffering by denying the body of all pleasure. They seldom ate. They would meditate in both extreme heat and cold, naked and exposed to the elements. They would engage in practices which pushed the body and the mind to undergo great discomfort in order to transcend it.
Siddhartha lived among them for six years and had so surpassed them in all their austerity that they looked upon him as their mentor. But despite this he was greatly unsatisfied. He still had not transcended suffering. Then one day, while sitting by the river, Siddhartha overheard a conversation between a musician and his student. The musician was explaining how to tune the instrument. “If the string is too tight it will snap. But if it’s too loose it will slap.” Siddhartha had another profound realization in that moment. He had lived both in luxury as well as in austerity, and neither of these had brought him any lasting satisfaction. Perhaps, the way to enlightenment was somewhere in the middle, a balance between the two, neither indulging nor denying. He realized that desire and aversion are two sides of the same coin. But that epiphany did not mean that he was liberated.
Following this new insight, he left the ascetics and went on alone. He found a tree where he sat down and vowed not to move until he had become fully liberated. As he sat in meditation all of his subconscious mechanisms arose to the surface. There he faced his shadow self, his lust and greed, fear and anger, his ego-identification, self-doubt and all of the many other issues that confound us. And one by one he observed them, examined them, and saw through them. It was in this way he transcended them. And it was only after this that he would come to be known as the Buddha, the “Awakened One”.
We often romanticize that moment in his life, forgetting that for Siddhartha the process of awakening had begun many years prior to this. And I think this can be very encouraging, because if it was a gradual process even for him, then we shouldn’t feel so discouraged or frustrated by the fact that it may be a long gradual process for us as well.
So we can take solace in this. And we can embrace the process with patience. We don’t have to force anything. There’s no hurry. In fact, trying to get somewhere is what prevents us from being present. And if we try to fake it to make it, we just get stuck in the pretense, never actually making any real progress.
The process of awaking is really about bringing awareness into every aspect of our thinking and perceiving. This means owning all of the bullshit, not denying it. With loving acceptance, we can recognize our blockages, our false beliefs, our emotional reactions, without self-judgment and criticism. And we can learn to be more authentic. That means not trying to be enlightened, but simply acknowledging exactly where we are, right here, right now, unenlightened, with all of our flaws and imperfections, and not being ashamed of it. It means allowing those undesirable qualities to be known and compassionately accepted, but also to examine them, to understand them. And it’s by understanding them in depth that they gradually dissolve on their own, without any need to struggle and strive.
So we don’t need to try and force awakening to happen. We can be relaxed about it, allowing it to unfold naturally and effortlessly. All we need to do is observe the process with greater awareness, without resistance to what is.