What does it mean to awaken? Are we awakening from something or are we awakening to something? In a mundane sense, when we awaken, we are awakening from the sleep cycle of dreaming and deep sleep, to the conscious waking state. In a spiritual sense, we are not awakening from the waking state to another state, but are awakening from states. The body and brain still go through states. But, mind becomes free of states. Although, there may be a time when we "awaken", a sudden transition and transformation that happens in time, the awakening is not in time or space. People relate stories about their awakening, how it came about, what it was like, what life has been like since the initial awakening. But, this has little to do with awakened mind, awakened awareness. This is just the relative story. People that are not yet awakened hear these stories and start looking for experiences. But, the experiences are not the awakening. The awakening is what was there before the experiences and stories and what remains after the experiences and stories.
Before awakening, we are in a kind of union with what we are doing. We loose self awareness and get absorbed in the activity of the day. As people practice meditation, they find that there is silence behind all the more turbulent aspects of mind, not a dead silence but bare, baseline awareness. It is unowned. It is not my awareness or your awareness but pervasive, omnipresent. Once pure awareness is clearly seen, it cannot be unseen. It may fade, be temporarily forgotten as we habitually react to life as we were accustomed before awakening. But, that pure awareness is indelible once seen. It becomes clear that it is the very foundation of life and the medium of all relative experience.
If this awake awareness is always there, why aren't we naturally aware of it? How often are we aware of our noses? How often do we notice our eyes blinking? Our heart beating, our breath? We notice things when they change. When air suddenly becomes warmer or cooler, we suddenly notice air, that we are living within a gaseous atmosphere. We otherwise don't notice it unless suddenly deprived of it. Through change, phenomena are noticed. What is silent, omnipresent, unchanging, our very essence is completely overlooked.
So, how was this awareness discovered? Whether we look to the Upanishads, the Dao De Jing, Buddhist Sutras, the Bhagavad Gita, the Yoga Sutras, mysticism or Native spirituality, there are always two things that are present for awakening to occur:
1. A settled mind.
2. Open clarity.
When conditions are such that the mind is calm and settles, thoughts naturally subside. But, for awakening to occur, there must also be an open, receptive clarity. It is not a catatonic state, but calm clarity. It is what is there when there is pure, direct observation before any associations, analysis, opinions or commentary form in the mind. We may first notice this as clear, silent awareness we experience in meditation, or when we are rapt by a sunset, in the presence of a ancient tree, swimming laps, or sketching a landscape. In meditation, there can be times when there appear to be gaps in the continuity of time and space, when we are not sleeping, but momentarily transcend all experience. Certain meditation methods help explore and clarify these periods of transcendence. But, if when through with meditation, our mind returns to its habitual reactive state, it can take many years for the silence of meditation to find its way into day-to-day waking life. Initially, we need to remind ourselves to pause, to not react, to let go and be with whatever is arising.
Through mindfulness of our mental and emotional states and settled clarity about what is actually happening, the silent clarity we fine in meditation becomes the conscious baseline awareness throughout the day. As this silent awareness becomes predominant, it can feel like a silent witnessing, like awareness is seeing through the portals of the eyes, hearing through the ears. Initially, it can feel very localized, like one is riding in one's head peering out through the senses at an external phenomenal world that is separate from this silent witness. It's very much a state of duality, where inner silence experiences all activities of the day. One may feel extraordinarily content, even blissful. You may even feel this has become a permanent transformation and that you have "awakened." And this is an awakening -- an initial awakening to pure awareness as it starts to become embodied in day-to-day life. But, this isn't complete. It's a partial truth. One can still be very self-centered in this state, perhaps maximally self-centered. While it is true that when we feel self-content, we may be more free to care for others, it doesn't always play out that way. Some people can become quite reclusive when they find themselves to be the silent witness of all they perceive and that self-awareness becomes quite deep. It doesn't necessarily activate the heart. Sometimes people can become quite aloof, distant during this early phase of awakening. In the worst case, they can even become dysfunctional, have problems in their relationships and become dissociated. This is not liberation. This is where it really helps to have a good teacher that has been through this and has seen other people go through it. People can get stuck here for a long time without a better map or clear instruction.
It's important to note that some may spontaneously start experiencing life as a silent witness without ever learning to meditate or without ever having an interest in spiritual development. I remember periods as a child when I felt like I was riding in a mechanical structure very much like the imperial stormtroopers that ride inside the head of those four legged tanks in Star Wars episodes. I had intense self-awareness and the accompanying sense of separation from what is perceived. I remember when I was in the Air Force and would drive out to Cape Hatteras on Friday night and lay out on the beach at night, I would experience a state of restful alertness that would last for hours and upon rising with the sun, was bright, silent awareness experiencing the world. I'm sure many people have had such periods of clarity. But, this is a very dualistic state, a state of silent separateness. It can be a very self-content, blissful state, but it is a kind of one-sided awakening. We have awakened from a state where we were largely not self-aware to a state where self-awareness never seems to leave, even in dreams and even in dreamless sleep. If one dreams, there is clarity that one is dreaming. If the body turns in the middle of the night, initially it can be quite jarring and surprising, as if rolling inside a dark log in the middle of the night. All this evens out with time.
As mentioned, one of the pitfalls of this stage is to think that one is enlightened and finished with the path. Or worse, that one is ready to teach others. People can get trapped here. And in spite of all the non-dual speak about there not being a person, there is very much a person in this state. Both negative and positive egoic tendencies can still be quite active, though they are witnessed coming and going. Such a person can still be very caught up in narrative stories about why they "must" do this or that or excuses why they continue to do this or that. With time, these begin to be seen through.
And with time, due to the increasing clarity of perception and calmness of mind, things in the external world are seen more as they actually are and less through associative filtering, historical biases. There is a more direct seeing and through this seeing, insights about mental, emotional and the external physical world can occur. One fundamental insight is impermanence. All mental, emotional and physical states are constantly changing. The contrast between inner silent awareness and outer states can be quite pronounced during this period. On a Vipassana retreat in Springfield, Illinois, I once had the feeling that the world was like a burning building and I was inside it. My perception had become so sharp and laser-like during this retreat that I could take in all the sounds of birds chirping, mosquito buzzing, cars tires on asphalt, wind through trees, the sun on my face and it all translated into a deep sense that everything changing with dizzying speed, as if undergoing rapid oxidation. The entire world seemed to be burning with such rapid, uncontrolled change. And yet my mind was completely serene. During this phase, one can become very dispassionate. Relationships can suffer unless there is awareness with both partners what is happening and that "this too shall pass." My marriage suffered greatly during this period and finally ended in 2010 largely due to this dispassionate period that happened years before.
There can also be periods where the world is seen as a reflection of the inner silence. One becomes entranced by the simplest things. The natural world especially takes on a sublime beauty and grace that was previously missed. During this phase, relationships can be incredibly blissful. Sexual relationships can be absolutely incredible. Orgasms become rapturous, intense and prolonged. It becomes easy to fall in love with everyone and everything. Little-by-little, or all at once, the intense separation felt during earlier stages of awakening falls away. The silence once experienced internally as self, is now perceived out there in the world looking back at you. And there is an intuition and then a full blown realization that the silence out there is not different than the internal awareness. Or, it can happen in a kind of cataclysmic fashion where all separation just drops away in an instant. Once, while on a Chan retreat in New York state, I was practicing direct contemplation and was observing a big boulder out by a pond. Suddenly, awareness completely pivoted and I was no longer looking out at the world but the world was all awareness, like a cosmic symphony of cause and effect, but not in a dead Newtonian way, but a vibrant, live answering of all that came before, all things joyfully aware of the calling, all things the perfect answer. During that retreat, the separateness of self and other just evaporated away. Everything is perfect in its own right and all interactions between wind and leaves, water and rocks, sunlight reflecting of leaves and waves, everything utterly perfect and inseparable. And with this, the recognition that this body and being were part and parcel of the entire symphony of ubiquitous living awareness. During the ten hour drive home from that retreat, I was the car, I was the road, I was all other cars flowing as a school of fish, all conscious, all aware, all flowing in time but riding in such silence, inching our way across the surface of such a glorious planet, our living, intimate home.
When unity unfolds, it can be very blissful indeed. We feel at home no matter where we are. Nothing is foreign, everything is fascinating, nothing is none of our business. This is a time of vision and enterprise. We can feel that we have the blessing of Mother Earth, of the moon, sun and stars, of the entire universe. We can begin to feel that we are the grace that has blessed us. We can feel drawn to help others, save them from their limited thinking. We can become politically active, seeing things so much clearer than ever before, we feel drawn to lead and influence the direction locally and globally. We naturally think globally for the planet is not separate. There is only awareness. Consciousness. The universe is alive, is Life, and we are that Life!
As with all the other stages, this stage too can have it's downside. One can take on a bodhisattva identity, a savior identity. Compassion can become intense. We suddenly can feel what others are feeling with such depth and clarity and see so clearly why they are suffering we feel compelled to help them! Life doesn't have to be like that! Some even begin to think that they are on a mission from God and that they are God, by the way. An avatar here to deliver others from delusion! But, unless they see through these identities, they will only be leading others into the same enlightened delusion they are unwittingly suffering from.
And then, it can happen that suddenly all identification vanishes in an instant. Suddenly, there is a total absence of self-reference. There isn't even a thought that there is such an absence! A sudden, open, vacuousness. A complete dissolution of ownership, the concept of "my" or "mine", of localized awareness. The center disappears. Before, when one was feeling all one with everything, there was still a center that was localized in space and time that felt one with everything else in space and time, it all backed by silence. But now, that localization disappears and the relating to all things as one disappears. There is a complete falling away of any imagined identity, whether as a professional, a bodhisattva, a guru or avatar. There is utter and complete humility and not even that because there is nothing to be humbled. This can happen in stages. The first time, it can feel like you are on the edge of an unfathomable crevasse and can take your breath away. You gasp and back away thinking, "What will become of me?" Fear is still binding you. It can happen again but this time you are more prepared and find yourself in a free fall with no turning back. And at that point, there is no self-reference. Nothing is falling, nothing is disappearing, nothing, nothing, nothing. Yet perfect silence. All things resolved in this silence. Much ado about nothing. Vacuousness. And yet, not empty.
Emptiness, and yet not devoid of anything. The great resolution. Nothing unresolved. Perfect peace. An end to striving. An end to fear. Nothing more to do.
And yet, life continues. We are still in relationships. We still do work. We still try to take care of others needs. We still get hungry. We still pay bills. Others still have expectations of us. We are still in the world. Initially, this can be a very disorienting time unless it happens gradually in increments giving time to acclimate to being in the world in this new, ancient way.
This all happens quite naturally. No amount of intellectual contrivance can bring it about any faster than it will occur from simple meditation practice coupled with mindfulness practice. But, understanding how it unfolds and what some of the pitfalls are along the way can save a lot of time and suffering of self and others. Understanding milestones can help save relationships worth saving but otherwise in jeopardy. Hope this might help inspire practice and prevent getting caught up. This is the way I see it at this point based on what has happened. Others may see it differently. Don't take my word for it. Find out for yourself. <3