There is this popular idea within culture that sometimes people must undergo some sort of enlightening experience or a so called spiritual awakening. Some people seek to do this with drugs while others want to discover a process that can be followed without drugs to reach some ultimate enlightenment. In either case, they want to fully encounter all of the blissful symptoms and keen awareness that is supposed to come along with such an experience. So the question begs, how does one have a spiritual awakening? How do we reach enlightenment? I want to use this post to touch a bit on this topic using my own experiences and ideas.
Why Do You Need a Spiritual Awakening?
We have all undoubtedly heard stories of those who have had some sort of awakening experience or have reached an enlightened state of being, suddenly. However, what we also tend not to hear about is that a sudden and overwhelming experience is not necessary to go through, and often times it can be short lived.
I, personally, have felt short term experiences which allowed me to feel as if I was in a state of bliss (that’s the best word to describe it). All of them lasted a week or less and were ‘achieved’ without drugs. While these experiences felt important at the time, and allowed me to dig deeper into trying to crack the code of making that feeling permanent, they weren’t necessary to experience the truth of each moment.
What do we need to awaken to? This is the question I want to ask to you. If we assume that we need to experience profound and almost drug-like experience, in order to become enlightened or feel at peace or whatever. Then, we have set a goal that we must work to reach. We have to undergo a process of becoming something or learning how to trigger the experience that we wish to feel. As spiritual teachers such as Eckhart Tolle and Nirmala are fond of asking in their own ways, “Is there something wrong with this moment?”
Why are we chasing the experience itself instead of becoming centered with the moment and allowing it to be as it is? Are we simply in love with the process of working towards it? Do we just want to experience the symptoms of an awakening and escape the seemingly mundane tasks of everyday life?
When we put forth the goal of achieving spiritual enlightenment, it immediately sends this achievement off into the future. Who knows whether or not we can ever reach this lofty ideal BUT it does take our awareness off of the present moment. This creates the thought that we cannot achieve some inner peace or stillness until that unknown date in the future. The reality of our experiences is set in this moment and this is how you get to some understanding of what is true.
Seems boring, right? What if you’re looking around and you don’t see anything going on around you? Or what if you’re looking around at a busy street and seeing everyone moving rapidly and lost in their own thoughts? Our mental conditioning wants something to happen, we want to be stimulated, and have some completely divine experience. It doesn’t always work out that way, and it is more of an allowing of things to be, rather than trying to force something memorable to occur.
Besides, in wanting a memorable experience, what are we really after? An actual transformation or something that is more ethereal and overwhelming? Do we want a memory of our spiritual transformation, which we can play back again and again in our minds as if it were a favorite film? Memories are highly edited versions of what has occurred (or what we think has occurred) in the past and each time that you play back the memory, it may get further and further from the truth of the experience.
Each successive moment is another opportunity to get sucked back into our conditioning and lose touch with awareness. That isn’t to say that our awareness or our being ever disappears, but we can become almost unconscious to its presence at times. As such, each moment is also an opportunity to increase our awareness and get in touch with the truth.
Getting in touch doesn’t need to be going into some deep meditative trance, rather, it can simply be an awareness of any sensory inputs, emotions, thoughts, or any other feelings one may be having in the moment. The goal isn’t to become free of thought or free of emotions but instead allow them to be, observe and bring awareness to them, and ultimately let them go.
For example, if a feeling of anger arises do not become identified with that feeling as if it is you. Allow the anger to be, feel it, and question what that feeling is? Why did it arise? Is what triggered this feeling, actually a big deal? Is it simply a reaction of the ego? Does this rage ultimately matter? It does not, it is just passing through, and the anger can only set up camp in your mind/body if you let it.
Living in the Ether versus the Real World
Just because we have an awakening, doesn’t mean we can neglect the reality of our life situation. Could you imagine what would happen if everyone went and lived the life of a monk? What would get done? How would society function? Would people have to abstain from sex, in order to meet some ascetic ideal? Would that be the end of the species?
It is simply not practical for our survival, to sit around meditating and chanting all day, in order to reach some enlightened realm. I also feel, that this scenario or something equally nonsensical like people expecting to become awakened and have some super powers as a result, just isn’t realistic. Food still has to be grown, life still has to be created, and jobs still need to be done in order to keep everything running in our society. Enlightenment isn’t some woo-woo esoteric type of thing, which requires you to purchase endless training and ‘power crystals’.
The ‘truth’ as so far as it lies in each moment is gained by bringing our awareness to each moment. Sometimes, this process is effortless, it just happens while you’re in sort of a flow state. Other times, your senses are overwhelmed with the massive information influx of your day to day life and it takes a concerted effort to peel back the layers of noise and allowing your awareness of each moment to take over. We can get caught up in the extremes of life but becoming aware and present is the way to snap back towards the center of experience.
Emptiness, Being, and Nihilism
Also note that, this process can be scary for some people because it rids them of their identity and makes them recognize that they are not truly their bodies, their job titles, their family names, etc. and instead are fundamentally an awareness. Delving into each moment in this way, can make it seem as if the world/your mind is truly empty, which can lead some down the path of nihilism or avoidance of experiencing these moments all together.
That’s a short-sighted approach to take, I’ve learned. Just because you search for the ‘truth’ or some meaning you can prescribe to human experience and all you find instead is an empty ‘awareness’ doesn’t mean that it was a fruitless journey. That emptiness contains nothing yet it is still something, its a space that is fundamental to the universe as a whole, which is rather beautiful in a way and speaks to a oneness that connects everything.
If this direct sensory experience is all we currently have, then why not make it as fun and enjoyable as possible? Accepting the moment doesn’t mean you have to accept life as it currently is…life is always fundamentally changing, so it never is the same in the first place. Things may not be ideal and the ideal is never what we expect it to be but we can still bring our awareness to the moment, give it space to be, even when the moment isn’t what we currently want to be doing.
How to Become Present
Allowing yourself to become present to the moment is a matter of allowing your awareness to be focused upon the moment. An easy way to begin is through the use of your physical senses first, before moving on to thoughts. The world around you is processed as information through your various nerve endings and into your brain. Pay attention to this information. Thought can often get muddled together with this information because of our past interpretations of the information which our senses brought in. A thought or memory can then be replayed, and seem as if it is real, even though it is simply a concoction of old data we’ve collected about the world.
What do you see around you? You don’t need to label it or make any judgments about it, just observe the visual sensations that your eyes are taking in. Recognize that even when the room appears to be stagnant, things are constantly changing on a molecular level and in each passing moment, the room is fundamentally not the same as it previously was. Our eyes aren’t so finely tuned as to be able to pick up changes on the molecular or atomic levels or even with certain changes in the light.
Sound is another experience which we can bring our attention to next. It can be one of the most distracting of the senses and for that reason is why so many like to meditate in a silent room or with some background music, so that they are able to focus and not be constantly distracted by jarring noises. Becoming aware and present to the moment doesn’t require specialized auditory conditions. In fact, simply surrendering to the various sounds and noises of your environment is often enough to become present to the moment.
Through the use of tools such as meditation, we can simply allow the moment to be as it is, and develop a greater and greater skill at allowing this to happen until it becomes almost effortless. The mind is full of chatter and beginning meditation practitioners may notice that it takes them a long time into their session to stop getting sucked into each thought as it comes about. That’s okay, it still happens to me too, the key is to stick with it and allow that silent awareness to come into focus.
Shifting awareness levels
A favorite thought experiment of mine has been to view my experience with the world as being sort of like a microscope. I can magnify my attention and awareness on certain things or I can zoom out or indeed even back away from the microscope completely. Being in a highly magnified state, so to speak, can be great for working on an individual project but it can also easily become a negative when we begin to identify with our thoughts or become completely egoic or lose ourselves from the bigger picture of our lives.
On the flip side, stepping away from the microscope and taking on a ‘universal’ perspective can be great for becoming aware of the ‘oneness’ of life and how small we are as individuals compared to the larger configuration BUT it isn’t so good for tackling practical day to day matters…which are a fact of our modern lives. The ‘spiritual awakening’ which many people have experienced occurs on this level of thought and like so many other things can become addicting to want to stay on this level constantly. However, time still marches forward and as a practical matter, it isn’t always beneficial to stay at this level of awareness.
We still have biological and societal needs that are required for keeping the human experience going. One doesn’t have to take our daily tasks as a super serious affair, rather, we can allow ourselves to experience each successive moment without labeling it our creating an overall narrative about it. Whether a man works in an office or on an oil rig, he can do the physical and mental tasks which his life circumstances currently require, without creating an identity around it and putting it all aside when the tasks are complete.
I have found that in my own life, there needs to be some sort of balance between the interplay of my societal tasks/duties, my biological underpinnings, and having the conscious awareness to recognize the shortness of it all. It’s this balancing act that has made my life so much more enjoyable over the past 5-6 years. I’m not stuck in the pure societal mindset that had me feeling lost, depressed, unable to enjoy my work, etc. I’m not falling into the pure biological either, though I still enjoy sex, food, and the like…it doesn’t keep me in a never ending cycle of more and more. At the same time, I haven’t had to follow the teaching of some yogi, attend seminars, go meditate in the mountains in some pursuit of truth…it’s right here, whenever I’m ready to face it. Wouldn’t it be a sad fact for humanity if this so-called enlightenment was only available to the rich and leisured classes? I don’t want to be pulled to far into either direction and spend my life chasing something that isn’t really there. I want to enjoy this life for whatever it is and for however long I am allowed to. That’s it and that’s my truth of a spiritual experience.