What is Spiritual Awakening?

Introduction

Today the term spiritual awakening appears to be used rather loosely to define a variety of experiences and states that people go through. It’s particularly hard to understand this concept for a few reasons:

  1. It is pretty common for some teachers or “experts” to explain spiritual awakening from hearsay – repeating words read or heard, usually understood partially and only at the conceptual level, without actually experiencing it. This can easily generate misunderstanding and cause confusion.
  2. People from different backgrounds and contemplative paths are using words to explain a process that goes beyond concepts. In addition, what has been experienced gets overlaid on people’s beliefs, cultural baggage, and past conditioning and gets communicated in the context of those elements. It is no surprise that we can find a range of explanations of what the spiritual awakening is and how it has been felt for a variety of individuals.
  3. The only way to start grasping awakening is to understand its directionality and at least get an experiential glimpse of it. Intellectual understanding alone will usually not be sufficient.

Even though there is no unique definition for spiritual awakening, there are many contemplative and wisdom traditions that we can tap into to get a sense of its meaning. To this end, we have interviewed three teachers from different contemplative traditions and backgrounds, who have engaged in meditation practice and inner exploration for many years and shaped their lives around the journey of exploring their true nature and spiritual awakening. They have extensive and rigorous training with masters from time-tested and well-regarded traditions as well as a lifelong personal daily practice. This is what they have to say about awakening:

Meido Moore, Rinzai Zen

The essential point of the Zen path is to be enlightened through a direct seeing of one’s true nature: kensho. Open and undefiled, free of mind fabrication, grasping or fear, beyond effort and dualistic concept – this awakening that transforms one’s life has been called the recognition of your own “original face”.

There are many methods transmitted in Zen lineages for arriving at this decisive spiritual awakening. Rinzai Zen lineages, in particular, are known for the richness of their inherited practices, including profound oral instructions handed down privately between teacher and student.

Among the best-known, Rinzai Zen methods for entering, deepening, and embodying spiritual awakening are sanzen (dynamic encounter with the teacher in which the “direct pointing” to awakening occurs), foundational and advanced methods of zazen (seated meditation), koan meditation, extensive practices training the breath and subtle energetic system, many yogic methods to reveal and revisit the mind’s natural clarity, the study of mantric vibration through chanting, and ritual practices for many purposes. Within these broad categories (and others), there are, in fact, endless practices that the Rinzai Zen student may use, according to one’s basic needs and abilities. The Zen teacher’s role, like that of a doctor, is to prescribe the methods that fit.

Through the devoted study of such methods and with guidance from the teacher, one swiftly progresses upon the path of spiritual awakening, gaining unshakeable confidence that one’s own natural mind is precisely what we call “Buddha.” Training with devotion, revealing this intrinsic wisdom in the play of daily activities, freedom and liberation naturally unfold.

But while the path of spiritual awakening and its full embodiment requires devoted practice, we should not think it is necessary to leave normal life to do so. It is entirely possible to awaken to the truth of this boundless nature – the truth of one’s own mind as Buddha – while still engaged in the everyday activities of work, family, and the world. But the life of a Zen practitioner who has realized awakening will be different from that of others: our usual fixations, neuroses, and selfish motivations are not as binding. Our constant ups and downs become less dramatic over time as faith in our basic wisdom-nature deepens. We learn methods to establish stability and clarity within our lives, sustaining and integrating the wisdom of awakening within our activities. We begin to have glimpses of wondrous freedom.

We even start to feel that our greatest joy – and our true calling – is not to achieve the usual self-centered goals valued by society. Rather, it is to be of service to others and to all suffering beings, everywhere. This is the life of the bodhisattva, the “wisdom being.” Through the path of Zen practice, it becomes our own life. 

Rinzai Zen is an extremely direct path of spiritual awakening, quickly dissolving delusion. Its power to transform can seem almost shockingly strong. But those who practice it may attain profound wisdom within this very life. The authentic expression of such wisdom is compassion.

Tina Rasmussen, Theravada, and Tibetan Buddhism

If we look into Theravada and Tibetan Buddhism, and many other wisdom traditions that have investigated the phenomena of spiritual awakening for thousands of years, we can categorize most of the meditation and inner exploration practices for spiritual awakening into the four groups. The most interesting fact is that today those four categories of meditation are being confirmed by numerous studies in neuroscience. The first category is the heart-based meditation practices, which include Bodhicitta and Brahmavihārās practices consisting of loving-kindness, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity that are important for maintaining our open-heartedness in the face of a variety of life situations. The second category is focused attention practices – Samatha that is critical for unifying the mindstream and develop a laser-like focus needed to cut through our normal perception of reality to a more fundamental one. The third category is open-monitoring practices, which are important for purifying the view through the investigation of our internal and external moment-to-moment experience. An example of open-monitoring practices is Vipassana. The fourth category is self-transcending practices, which can help to open the dimension of non-duality leading toward spiritual awakening. 

Within the Theravada Buddhist tradition, spiritual awakening is seen as having four stages, the first being Stream Entry. From a technical standpoint, Stream Entry is attained by practicing Samatha and Vipassana (2 of the 4 categories of meditation practice), leading to the possibility of cessation, in which the individual consciousness is “thinned” enough to be absorbed into the ground consciousness temporarily, and is forever altered by that event. It is then possible for awakening to progress through the next three stages, culminating in the Arahant stage, in which all personality conditioning is gone, and the person is fully enlightened. This is a very rare occurrence. On the other hand, Stream Entry is accessible to more people.

In the Tibetan Buddhism Dzogchen practice (which includes all four categories of meditation), spiritual awakening can happen in brief “tastes” of the ground awareness, in mind-moments that are cultivated through the Rigpa practice. This is known as “realizing Rigpa.” As one’s practice deepens, Rigpa can be stabilized, and even “locked-in” (my term, not a Buddhist term), where it becomes an ongoing “self-liberating” state called “non-distracted non-meditation.” In this, we are not meditating formally, because any identifications release themselves automatically so that abiding as the ground awareness is undisturbed. This is a very advanced state, but well worth cultivating because it enables the possibility of living from the ground awareness while functioning in life off-the-cushion as a normal human being rather than having to be on the cushion meditating for those experiences to be possible.

In Tibetan Buddhism, it is seen that we are born with inherent Buddha-nature, and a person who is on the path can make the commitment to be a Bodhisattva, who is committed to spiritual awakening and enlightenment not only for their own benefit but for the benefit of all beings. Full enlightenment means being a fully realized Buddha, which has only happened a few times. But realizing Rigpa is accessible for many more people.

An important aspect that is common to both of these traditions (and most others), is non-duality. This is when the ego-self (our sense of being a “me” who is the “doer” of our life) goes “dormant,” and the dualistic subject-object split (sense of “me” and “other” people, objects) collapses, and phenomena are experienced as unity/emptiness, without a sense of separating body boundaries or a sense of being the “doer”. There are many ways non-duality can be experienced—known as the Formless Realms or Dimensions on Non-duality.

So in summary, spiritual awakening is a shift of identity, from feeling like a separate “me” doing our lives, to feeling our identity as being the ground awareness itself, functioning spontaneously from the Ground of Being, from the non-duality described above. In Buddhist models, spiritual awakening is not stable until the very last stage, so identification with the “me” still comes and goes, and a person acts based on that at times, although it is no longer believed to be the ultimate reality. The idea that spiritual awakening happens once and is complete (without any progressive stages), is one of the many misconceptions.

Shaykh Burhanuddin, Sufism

What is already awakened can not be awaken and yet it seems there are a thousand veils within us which want to be removed.

In Sufism, we see the path toward spiritual awakening within four dimensions.

The first dimension is the physical. In the Sufi tradition, we believe the physical body is a reflection of the spiritual body and through the study of it, one develops an awareness of the body, feelings, and sensations that can help to see the reality less conceptual and fabricated and contribute to the process of the unification of body and mind. In this dimension, practitioners work with their bodies and engage in a variety of somatic practices such as Yoga, Tai Chi, Dance, and more.

The second dimension is related to the mind. This stage is explored through meditation, psychotherapy, contemplation, and philosophy, and practitioners are exposed to their conditioning and ego structures, and engage in the meditative practices to clearly see how the mind works and fabricates our experience.

The third dimension is the dimension of the soul and this is the area of prayers and devotion and for most, it is considered the highest point of spiritual manifestation, but there is a fourth dimension.

The fourth dimension is nameless, but some, in order to address it somehow in words, Sufis have named it “Azimat”, which refers to the reality of the divine in which nothing is perceivable rather than the divine itself. 

Spiritual awakening can be comparable to when one wakes up from night dreams, the moment you wake up, you always wake up into a more dominant reality than what you were in whilst you were dreaming. No matter how beautiful, pleasant or horrible your dream has been, the moment you wake up to the reality of the dimension that you usually identify with, it becomes dominant and takes immediate control over again.

Spiritual awakening is a gradual process. However, it can also happen as a sudden event. According to the Sufi Tradition, in order to manifest that state consistently within oneself, a person has to continuously live in that dimension for a considerable amount of time otherwise the gravity of personality material and past conditioning will bring the person back to the default mode. In Sufism, we have two words that describe this process – Hal which can be translated as a condition meaning that one has had glimpses of spiritual awakening which can not be sustained and happens infrequently and the second one is named Maqam, which means one has permanently stabilized in a new consciousness that is awakened.

Conclusion

As we can see, different contemplative traditions and teachings use a variety of frameworks and words to define spiritual awakening which might involve both mystical and secular terms. However, despite different terminology and frameworks, there is a set of characteristics that are common across the traditions for defining what spiritual awakening is:

  • Spiritual awakening involves the transcendence of sense of self (ego) and some form of non-duality (e.g. one without a sense of separating body boundaries, a sense of being the “doer”, or subject-object split)
  • Spiritual awakening involves a profound change in the way a person understands and views the world, life, self, and people around
  • Spiritual awakening can be glimpsed or experienced through both a gradual process and sudden events however it takes time and practice to stabilize it and consistently operate from the new state  
  • Spiritual awakening moves one toward being of service to others rather than around self-centered goals

Even though the journey of spiritual awakening might seem long and daunting, there are many practical benefits that practitioners can experience at the very beginning by engaging in the practices without necessarily going all the way toward the final stages.

You can learn more about what spiritual awakening is in the What Is Awakening Course by Tina Rasmussen. We also recommend you to check out our other courses which are aimed to help you uncover profound insights about the nature of your consciousness.

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