Misconceptions about Spiritual Awakening

— How conceptual awakening blocks authentic awakening
John Smith—07/2012
It is our ideas about spiritual awakening that block us from realizing authentic awakening. As long as we see awakening as an exhaulted or special state of mind, we will remain asleep in conceptual awakening.

WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN someone who has realized his or her true nature and somebody who has not? The answer is that one has realized his or her true nature and the other has not. Apart from that, there is not necessarily any difference.

This is not something that most of us what to hear because we have a psychological investment in putting those that are spiritually awake onto pedestals, and making awakening itself as something that gives us certain qualities or attributes. We want to feel that we have something to gain by awakening, and expect those who have awoken to have many of the following attributes:

  • They experience abiding peace and joy
  • They are moral, fair and just
  • They are loving, kind and compassionate
  • They are perceptive and all-knowing
  • They are in constant bliss and samadhi
  • They are in deep and everlasting peace
  • They are wise & intelligent
  • They are powerful healers
  • They are fearless and open
  • They are filled with light or divine energy
  • They are good teachers and really understand others
  • They are not driven by desires or have no desires
  • They have completed themselves & resolved personal issues
  • They have special powers and psychic abilities
  • They have a high vibration, frequency, energy, or calibration (muscle test)
  • Their chakras are open, their kundalini has risen, and karma has finished
  • Their actions are beyond understanding, criticism and culpability

However, equating spiritual awakening with any of these attributes is actually a fallacy caused by seeing awakening through the lens of our own ego. From the ego's perspective, awakening is some sort of special or rare event, a bit like a lottery win, which bestows great knowing, powers and exalted states of mind on those lucky enough to win it. This sort of conceptual awakening is actually the birth of a new super-ego or spiritual ego, one so insidious that it hides behind the mask of no-ego. And spiritual egos are notoriously difficult to identify, let alone route out — a trap for almost everyone on a spiritual path.

It is important to state straight off that many of those who awaken do experience many of the above, but no combination of these qualities can define awakening and so these attributes are in no way a checklist for awakening. Take peace, for example. We have all heard that peace is a by-product of awakening, and that when we are no longer identified with the "I", we feel this abiding and deep peace. But this is not strictly true because when we are awake we do not label peace as peace. Our experience of being is total and all-inclusive — and any label misses the mark and distorts the experience. Of course, labels are sometimes useful for teachers to discuss awakening with students, but if we believe in those labels, if we see peace as an absolute indicator of or equivalence to awakening, then it becomes something for the ego to get its teeth into. And this can make authentic awakening more difficult.

Because we have such a fanciful, conceptual and distorted understanding of what awakening is, erroneously equating it with many of the above attributes, we end up completely missing its simplicity and availability. We become so distracted by the shimmering light of the chocolate's gold wrapping paper that we never get to eat the contents. But unless we eat the contents, we will never taste the sweetness of spiritual maturity.

Is it possible for some of those who are genuinely awake to be immoral, unloving, uncompassionate, ignorant, stupid, desirous and just plain old nasty? At first we may simply dismiss such a ridiculous assertion, but looking deeper we might realize that we can never really be sure — only the ego is sure. After all, just because we wake up spiritually does not suddenly make us into spiritual saints, sages and/or avatars. Generally, if we are stupid before awakening, we are stupid after awakening. Realizing our natural state is no guarantee that we transform as a personality (at least not immediately), only that we stop identifying with it. Over time some aspects will change as the oxygen of the ego has been cut off, but we have to get out of the mindset that there is a checklist for awakening. This mindset is one of the greatest impediments to spiritual awakening.

If that is the case, what is the purpose of awakening? If awakening does not necessarily lead to any of the above characteristics — characteristics that most people who want spiritual awakening are actually chasing after — then what is the point of awakening? Why would any of us want it?

These questions are those that only an ego would ask. The truth is that awakening holds nothing of benefit for an ego. Nothing. Not one thing. In fact, as authentic awakening is death to the ego, no ego in its right mind would want anything to do with authentic awakening, no matter what quality might arise. Conceptual awakening… well that is different. That holds great attraction to an ego because it allows us to play awake and keep our "I" intact — have our cake and eat it too. We become a superbeing (super-ego), and our personal identity can dance around the concept of awakening without having to face its own demise. The "me" wants to feel abiding peace and love; the "me" wants to be awake, without realizing that the "me" is the dream that we are waking up from.

So most people on the spiritual path are really wanting conceptual spiritual awakening, not authentic spiritual awakening. This is why only a tiny percentage actually wake up: only a tiny percentage want the real thing. The rest are on a spiritual ego trip and chasing after conceptual awakening without realizing it, and of course they will not wake up.

And this is also why it is never helpful for anyone to describe his or her own awakening, for such an event is always severely distorted by language and memory, and any such description acts as an impediment to authentic awakening as it gives the ego of those who are not awake an "out" to avoid its own annihilation by having something the mind can grab on to. This is how there can be so many people asleep who have authentically awake spiritual teachers. We do not wake up because we are attached to our spiritual identity, one that is often displayed for us by the teacher. So spiritual organisations are filled with individuals on spiritual ego-trips. (Nothing wrong with that — it is usually more pleasant to be around spiritual egos than ordinary egos, and spiritual people bring wonderful gifts to the world and do make it a better place — but it is not awakening.)

If we know that the only thing that we will necessarily gain from awakening is awakening itself, and that this awakening will cost us our very existence, then the whole game is very much less attractive to the ego. Indeed, if awakening was presented without the frills and extras — just raw awakening to our natural state — then only those actually interested in awakening would pursue it, and as a consequence a high percentage would wake up because they are not being hoodwinked by misperceptions and shiny packaging. (Most are just after shiny packaging, and so shiny packaging is the most they can attain.)

Most spiritual teachers out there are also just shiny packaging. They look the part and speak the part, but they are not awake. Most of them will have had temporary periods of awakening, but those periods are now just memories used in service to the spiritual ego. These teachers are actors who often give grand performances of being awake. Most are not dishonest, only delusional, and they teach their students a thespian tradition, so that there are whole lineages of Hollywood Holies, and we end up with the benign lobotomised look of the spiritual elite. And it doesn't even take an Oscar-winning performance to play an awakened spiritual master: even stiffly sitting on a chair on a stage and having the confidence to slowing scan an audience in silence can evoke the tears of gratitude in those who quite innocently project their own divinity into the performance. What they project is actually their natural state, but by projecting it they have distanced themselves from it.

If we really want to wake up, then we should stop going to the spiritual theatre; a theatrical performance, although profoundly emotive and gripping, is not going to help us. If we really want to wake up, then we need to get intimate with the natural state right here and right now, and any teacher, guru or master that does not specifically encourage us in this intimate introspection, no matter what his or her spiritual reputation and credentials, is an impediment to our awakening. If we really want to wake up, we need to realize the natural state in ourselves, nobody can do it for us. Others can certainly point us in the right direction, but the realization must be our own, otherwise we slip into a spiritual ego and get lost in conceptualisation and spiritual drama.

How many are prepared to give up the flashy exterior — the spiritual look — and make the humble quiet journey into emptiness? Not many! There is nothing flashy or even profound about waking up — it is very basic, very immediate and very simple. When authentic realization happens, many at first will even think they have been conned… "Is that it??" Yup, that's it! No light emanating from our body, no angels with trumpets, no suddenly knowing of the Akashic records, no special powers, no God's blessing… just the ordinary sense of being that has been there in the background all along. Nothing special. We find that we have been awake all along, but just not realize it because we have been engrossed in the story of I — attached to being a somebody who knows many things and has life adventures. But that somebody is just a fictitious character we have dreamed up and identified with.

If we are engrossed in a movie at the cinema it is because we have identified with one or more of the characters — we are into the story — and our minds are hungry to know what happens next. If we do not identify with any of the characters, we do not get into the movie and sit there twiddling our thumbs aware that we are watching something that is not real. This is why bad actors ruin films: they present a reality that is so unbelievable that we cannot get lost in the fiction, and we just want the movie to end.

If the acting is good and the story exciting, it is not easy dragging ourselves away from the movie as our identification with the characters is very strong. We are so hooked on the story that we just have to know what is going to happen next, and next, and next… We are not interested in getting up to leave the show. When a movie is absorbing, nothing can drag us away from it, not even food when we are hungry. And that is what is is like with our identity. We are hooked on being an "I", an "I" that loves, laughs, eats, has sex, meditates, gets angry, prays to God and all the other aspects of life. It doesn't really matter what the specifics of our character are, we get hooked whatever. Maybe we are a saint, maybe we are an office worker, maybe we are murder, but whoever we think we are, we get addicted to the story of that "me". That is just the nature of the bodymind. It loves stories; it loves fictions.

Most of us live our lives lost in the drama that we call life. We are lost and asleep in our characters. How do you wake up from that drama? We wake up in the same way that we might break our engrossment with a movie… we reference ourselves and in so doing we break the connection we have made to the movie's characters. In "real" life, however, when we reference ourselves, much to our surprise we find that there is no real self underneath to wake up to. Rather we find that our true nature is not an identity at all, just an ineffable awareness. This can be quite disconcerting for most people as having a "me" or "I" has always been central to our experience — a self has been the context of our whole lives — and then we discover that we are the awareness or consciousness that backlights the whole shebang. We are not Joe the gardener or Martha the company director rushing about in our living busy lives; we are the silent, invisible awareness that ticks over in the background, aware of everything and yet being touched by none of it.

So self-referencing is an important tool in breaking that hypnosis of "me". Another tool that is very powerful, allowing us to wake up from the story of our lives, is to accept every aspect and possibility of the story — to accept everything as it is without the desire to change it. In fact, it is our resistance to what is that maintains the illusion of a separate self. This can be very difficult because the other facet of our conceptual self is the conditional self. This make sense when you consider that stories and movies hook us not just by keeping us guessing about what will happen next, but to keep us guessing and hoping for one or other particular outcome. We become personally invested in the story. But if we decide to accept all possible outcomes — if it is okay if the hero lives or dies — suddenly the story is a lot less gripping; we disengage from it. It is also a bit like watching a tennis match: if we don't care who actually wins, we do not get involved with the tennis and can pull away quite easily if someone rings the doorbell. But if we are totally invested emotionally in one particular player winning (or losing), then it becomes very difficult to drag ourselves away from the drama. We are hooked.

By accepting the story as it is, our interest and identification with it wanes, and this gives us the opportunity to taste freedom. As Zen master Seng-Tsan once wrote: "The highest realization is to be without anxiety about imperfection." To be without anxiety about imperfection is to accept everything as it is. Many spiritual masters have interpreted this to mean that everything is predetermined as this philosophy (and it is just a philosophy) fits comfortably with the practice of letting everything be as it is, but a more modern view might be that letting everything be as it is is just a psychological tool to loosen our grip on fantasy. Predetermination, like any philosophy, is only meaningful from the perspective of those who are not awake. It is merely a useful teaching tool.

Our grip on fantasy is generally iron-tight. Most of us are too busy being a somebody, too conditioned in framing every experience with identity, to be able to easily disengage from the fantasy of self. We live in a modern society that is set up to reward only somebodies. Those with the strongest egos, such as actors and singers for example, have become the new royalty. There are no prizes for being a nobody. And so our waking up from the illusion of being a somebody can require some serious disengaging from the normal society that is encouraging and rewarding egotism at every opportunity. This disengaging can range from isolation to spending time only with like-focused souls who have woken up or who want to wake up. (Or we are just lucky, and a momentary distraction spontaneously breaks our concentration on the movie and we awaken to our real nature. Such spontaneous distractions often follow deep depression, sadness and loss.)

However, it is far easier and more attractive to most of us to be a spiritual somebody than a nobody. But the term "spiritual somebody" is an oxymoron — there is no place for ego in authentic spirituality. The spiritual marketplace is filled with oxy-moronic teachers and masters who are quite willing to lead students into the trap of spiritual identification, partly through ignorance and partly because they know that offering the sparkling trinkets of conceptual awakening gets them many more supporters, and much more adoration. But a somebody cannot teach us to be a nobody. Only a nobody can do that (or we can realize it spontaneously).

But even with authentically awake nobodies, only some are good teachers. Just because somebody is awake does not automatically mean they understand awakening or that they know how to facilitate someone else in awakening. As an illustrative point, suppose there is this authentically awake person call Teachanander. And suppose Teachananader spiritually woke up one day, quite by chance, lying in his bath whilst playing with his rubber ducks. After awakening, Teachanander decides to teach (after all, he has to make money somehow, and his old profession does not appeal to him any more). But Teachanander is not actually the best person to teach awakening despite the fact that he is authentically awake himself.

Why is this? Remember, Teachanander woke up spontaneously, so in fact he knows sweet FA about tackling issues that someone who is intentionally trying to wake up might have. All he actually knows is that one day, whilst having a bath, his rubber duckies all of a sudden looking rather interesting, and he stared at them for an hour before getting out the tub all spacey, light and wrinkly. Unless he learns a teaching structure and methods from other established Advaita teachers then his awakening experience is not helpful to others. After all, what is he going to do, recommend all his students take regular baths with rubber ducks? In fact, we generally find that teachers of awakening who themselves awoke spontaneously tend to be the ones that most vehemently opposed to any sort of practice or technique. Their outlook is that it "just happens" and there is little we can do to influence the process. (If that were the case, we may as well stop hanging out with awakened beings and just go home.)

Other teachers, however, with a more formalized and directed spiritual awakening, perhaps from a lineage of teachers, are quite happy to lead their students through structured teachings and practices in order to reduce the melodic noise of identity so that the quiet hum of basic awareness can be heard. (A few are also able to do this energetically.) This more active and formalized approach to spiritual awakening, as opposed to passively sitting around waiting for it to spontaneously happen, is in many ways better suited to your average student who is actively searching for awakening. An important advantage is that there is an experienced teacher to supervise the awakening of student, making sure that any temporary glimpses of awakening are not mistaken for full-blown awakening, and that the process of letting go identity continues AFTER the first glimpse of awakening, ensuring that the student does not fall back from that glimpse into spiritual egotism. The teacher can tell the student to just keep going.

In fact, in Buddhism for example, awakening is seen as just only one facet of spiritual maturity, a maturity that must balance raw awareness in a framework of Buddhist dogma and formal meditation (both of which can be distractions to awakening if the teacher is not him or herself awake). In modern Advaita, on the other hand, awakening is seen as complete and whole in itself, and any structure placed around it, like the practice of meditation or the exposition of spiritual beliefs, is usually frowned upon. But without any structure, modern Advaita is pretty much hit and miss (mostly miss, for reasons given above). But remember, awakening is awakening no matter how or where it arises.

Because students of the more formalized approach to awakening were instructed by their gurus or masters for long periods of time, even after awakening, they pick up a conceptual framework through which to present the process of awakening to others. The conceptual framework acts as training wheels so that pure awareness can be practiced by the student. Of course, eventually the training wheels have to come off and awareness directly experienced outside of conceptual framework, but at first the process ideally has some structure. (Otherwise we would all be just lying in the bath at home playing with our rubber ducks waiting for the magic moment.) And it is the teacher who will tell the student when he or she is experienced enough to teach or give talks themselves, and it is not usually straight after the first awakening. It is important that we settle first into our new identity (or lack of identity). And when a student does start to teach (give Satsang), s/he will have a whole system of accumulated wisdom to draw from — a whole teaching toolbox — not just a rubber duck.

Many Westerners who wake up, however, are outside of formalized teaching environments, and so they often begin teaching and giving Satsang soon after awakening, and this is reflected by their very dry one-dimensional presentation of awakening. The corners have not had a chance to round, and there seems to be little heart involved, especially with the Western men. (Those that do show more heart usually had India-linked gurus and teachers.) There is nothing wrong with a dry approach to awakening — indeed it suits some people — but for those of us who need more heart it can seem a bit over analytical.

But there is another factor here that was touched upon at the start of this article. Most of us see awakening as a discontinuity in which a new person is born. This is based on a conceptual view of awakening, one that assigns the attributes listed above. Whilst some people who awaken do change quite radically, most do not, at least not at first. After all, just because identification with the bodymind has stopped does not mean that the tendencies of that bodymind do not continue unabated, for a while at least. The bodymind has a momentum that takes time to change — a bit like changing the course of a large ocean liner — and it takes time for a mind that is no longer stimulated by identity to slow down. Many tendencies and idiosyncrasies seem to remain, even for life.

This could also be why Western Advaita teachers, especially the men, seem quite cold. They were cold before awakening so they are cold after. The same behaviour pattern arises. This is just a residual personality trait, but it can make a quite difference to the flavour of teaching. And as was mentioned earlier, if someone is stupid before awakening, realizing their true nature does not suddenly make them wise. There are awakened people who do not understand how the natural state they experience relates to the experience of those that are not awake, and as such they do not themselves make good teachers. (They can be so far into awareness that they are unable to relate at all to those who are not.)

So just because we wake up does not mean that our emotional and personality tendencies immediately change or disappear:

Stupid before awakening; stupid after awakening.
Cold before awakening; cold after awakening.
Kind before awakening; kind after awakening.
Loving before awakening; loving after awakening.
Short-tempered before awakening; short-tempered after awakening.
Womanizer before awakening; womanizer after awakening.
Chocoholic before awakening; chocoholic after awakening.

Awakening is much deeper than just personality characteristics.

Awakening is not a discontinuity. We are ostensibly the same after awakening as we were before awakening, even though something profound has changed at a deep intangible level that involves our sense of identity. That deep change does not instantly change our bodymind tendencies, although they will morph over time with the new perspective. So if we have an allergy before awakening, for example, we will probably have it after awakening (not like in the film Fearless with Jeff Bridges). We will certainly stop identifying with the allergy, and it may or may not abate over time because of this, but the allergy survives awakening.

To understand this is important when we interact with teachers of awakening. If we project our concepts of enlightenment on to them, we block the process of awakening in ourselves. As long as we see as having qualities that we do not, we cannot awaken. Every time we bow to a teacher, not out of respect for the teaching and the aspect of ourselves in them, but out of respect for their specialness and individuality, we do ourselves a great disservice. As long as we equate awakening with specialness, we will not awaken. It is almost as if we need to be tricked to drop all our projections of specialness, so that we can realize that awakening is just the awareness of the awareness behind ordinary states of consciousness that has been there all along. There is nothing exalted about awakening. It is present to the same degree in a gangster as it is in the Dalia Lama — just our awareness of this awareness is different from individual to individual. This realization of non-specialness can be disappointing to the ego. But it is deeply satisfying on a deeper level!

If we have a chance to dialogue personally with someone who is awake, it can be hugely helpful because a living interaction with another person really shows us how even our thoughts of non-identity are usually in the context of identity. For example, here is an imaginary dialogue between a student and a teacher:

Student: "I feel ecstatic being awake. Everything has dropped away."
Teacher: "Who is it that feels ecstatic?"
Student: "Okay, there is no 'I'. Well then… ecstasy just arises."
Teacher: "And who is aware of this ecstasy?"
Student: "Awareness… consciousness."
Teacher: "So the awareness is not the ecstasy itself?"
Student: "No, the awareness is not a feeling, I see that."
Teacher: "So feelings of ecstasy are nothing to do with being awake?"
Student: "Okay… I see… the ecstasy is being illuminated by awareness, but the ecstasy is not part of it."
Teacher: "Exactly, all things arise in awareness, but the awareness does not touch them."
Student: "But doesn't that mean that there is separation between awareness and feeling?"
Teacher: "If awareness were a thing that would be the case. But awareness is not a thing but an integral part of everything. You cannot have any feeling without awareness, so they are actually the same."
Student: "So in awareness I become everything."
Teacher: "In a way, but who is the I that becomes everything?"
Student: [Silence]
Teacher: "Time for some chocolate cake!"

Normally we are so mesmerized by our concepts and our thoughts, and so conditioned in our bodymind to view everything through the lens of identity, that even when we discuss non-identity we are doing so in the context of identity. Here the teacher is patiently encouraging the student to take backward steps out of the conceptual frame of identity. This trains the student to realize that basic awareness is present all the time, outside all conceptual frames — the very frames that make problems problems. By drawing the student away from conceptual frames, the problems and questions that are asked do not need to actually be answered because without the conceptual frame of "I" they are no longer relevant. This is where someone who is awake can be so helpful to us because it is invaluable to have an experienced teacher expose the conceptual frames that we take so much for granted that we are not usually conscious of them. When we do become conscious of these frames, like being able to see those stereogram 3d images that jump out of patterns on paper, we start to get the knack of identifying them ourselves and the teacher is no longer necessary.

In the West were egotism tends to be stronger, we often have to also give up practices that we have become strongly identified with, because these practices maintain our ego. For example, when people first become vegetarians, this dietary choice often becomes central to their identity — they feel superior to meat eaters because they feel that they are taking a stand against what is undoubtedly a cruel industry. So each time they eat a vegetarian meal, that action is reinforcing their conceptual self. In this case, if awakening is important to them, they might consider temporarily eating meat again just to break help break identification with being a vegetarian — being somebody special. (Being kind and ethical can be a difficult identification to surrender.) After that identification is broken and they wake up, they can return to being a vegetarian because it will no longer be supporting identity.

In much the same way, those who first awaken can be very uncompromising in their approach to Advaita and awakening — meditation, worship of God, concepts of reincarnation, prayer, mantras etc. are all dismissed as unnecessary and counterproductive. But in time the heart opens and becomes more inclusive, and we find that all these practices can be okay. Whilst it is true that for awakening we may have to temporarily give up any practice that we strongly identify with, once we are settled in our emptiness these practices can come back and integrate seamlessly with our being. In those that do not have strong identification with such practices, on the other hand, they can be continued right through the awakening process, if they come naturally to us. It really depends on you, your upbringing and your culture.

So the mind maintains the conceptual self by framing experience with identity, by having a conditioned view of reality (which maintains the conceptual self), and by our actions and how they reinforce identity. So we maintain ego by thought (conceptualisation), judgement (non-acceptance), and deed (by identifying with what we do) — and we move away from being ego centered by questioning who or what we are, by accepting life as it is, by stopping practices that bolster the ego, and by spending time with others on a similar path.

Lastly, it is important to clarify the role of the heart in awakening. When we love another it is because we recognize an aspect of ourselves in them. (Even the love of a man for a woman is the love of self-recognition — he projects his anima onto her.) So when we awaken and we recognize our profound unity with everything and everyone else, then we awaken unconditional and universal love. This does not necessarily happen instantly, and the awakening process can be quite dry and analytical for many. But after things settle in emptiness, the heart naturally opens.

There is a profound quote of Nisargadatta Maharaj where he says:

"When I look inside and see that I am nothing, that is wisdom. When I look outside and see that I am everything, that is love. And between these two, my life turns."

Maharaj is showing us the two facets of being: empty awareness and love. When we remove identity — wake up — we realize we are nothing; we are in pure being. But pure being removes the conceptualisation that separates us from everyone and everything else, so that we in the process of realizing we are nothing we move into unconditional love and realize we are also everything. That is the paradox of awakening.

Using Self-Inquiry to see its own limitations and fantasies is a vital step for breaking the spell of conceptualisation, but it is actually the heart opening that brings it all together into unity. Without an open heart, we never really connect with others in that empty awareness, and it is too easy for Advaita to become a perspective that separates those who are awake from those who are asleep, a separation highlighted by some teachers to justify their jobs and to sell books and CDs. The heart completes the process, and also removes the cold dryness and aloofness that we sometimes see in Western Advaita teachers. It is the heart that retains our warmth and humanity in the face of emptiness.




This article was written merely as an antidote to conceptual awakening, highlighting the checklist awakening mentality that blocks people from waking up. It offers only a glimpse of awakening. If you feel drawn to authentic spiritual awakening, there are many excellent Advaita teachers and teachings out there which can help you, some of whom have woken up completely spontaneously!