Eight Myths about Spiritual Awakening
Steve Taylor is the author of several books on psychology and spirituality, including The Fall: The Insanity of Human History and the Dawning of a New Era and The Calm Center: Reflections & Meditations for Spiritual Awakening. For six years he has been included in Mind, Body, Spirit magazine’s list of the ‘100 most spiritually influential living people.’ His must-read new book is The Leap: The Psychology of Spiritual Awakening, published as an Eckhart Tolle Edition (with a foreword by Eckhart). He is a senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Beckett University, UK. You can find him at www.stevenmtaylor.com.
One of the aims of my book The Leap is to clarify exactly what it means to be spiritually awakened. Through my years of research on this topic, I’ve become aware of many common ideas and assumptions about the state—some of which I used to hold myself—that simply aren’t true. A great deal of confusion exists about ‘spiritual awakening’ or ‘enlightenment’ in general. Many people have an impulse to ‘wake up’ but aren’t completely sure of where they’re heading, or how to get there.
Some of this confusion is the result of the countless ways that so many different traditions interpret the concept. If you asked a hundred different spiritual teachers or spiritual authors how they would define ‘wakefulness’ or ‘enlightenment’, you would probably get a hundred different answers. My aim is to clear up some of this confusion by more precisely identifying the characteristics of wakefulness, and by establishing exactly what it means to live in that state.
It’s also important for therapists, doctors, and others in the healing professions to have a clearer understanding of spiritual awakening. When it occurs suddenly and dramatically, awakening can be … a difficult process, involving psychological and, at times, even physical disturbances. Those who don’t have a background in spiritual practices or traditions may be confused about what is happening either to them, or to their patient or client. People in an awakening process need all the support and understanding we can give them in order to negotiate the challenges of those initial stages of waking up. Family and friends may think their awakening loved one is becoming psychotic, and unnecessarily refer them for psychiatric treatments, like medication, which can obstruct the awakening process. The more knowledge there is of the characteristics of awakening, the less likely this is to happen.
Another reason we need a clearer understanding is to give us a means of distinguishing between fake and genuine wakefulness. Since spiritual teachers are unregulated, there has always been a problem with deluded or exploitative people installing themselves as ‘gurus’ and exploiting vulnerable followers. But if we have a clear idea of what it actually means to be ‘awake’, then it should be easier to identify fraudulent or deluded teachers.
So let me highlight eight common myths about wakefulness and then explain why I believe they’re false.
No. 1: Wakefulness is unusual.
This is one of the biggest misconceptions about wakefulness—and one that I used to believe myself. When I first began my research, I was amazed at how easy it was to find cases of people who had woken up. And that’s still true. I’m continually surprised at the large number of examples I come across—the awakened individuals I meet by chance or synchronicity, and those persons who contact me to tell me that they have been through (or are going through) the same experience.
In most cases, they’re people who don’t have any background in the spiritual traditions and know very little about them. They’re often ordinary people searching for an understanding of the remarkable shift they’ve been through. As a result, I’m certain there are thousands of other people out there who have experienced this shift (mostly triggered by intense psychological turmoil) and have yet to make sense of it—or even tell anyone about it, for fear of being misunderstood.
No. 2: Wakefulness is extraordinary.
People who experience wakefulness are often surprised by how ordinary it seems, how natural and easy and right it appears. It feels utterly familiar, even if we have no recollection of experiencing it before. In fact, when we wake up, it’s our normal ‘asleep at the wheel’ mode that seems peculiar and unnatural. This sleep state feels aberrational in its discord, constriction, and shadowy, limited vision of reality. When we wake up there’s a sense of returning home to the place where we were meant to be all along.
No. 3: Wakefulness makes us passive and inactive.
Don’t awakened people just sit and meditate all day, immersed in their own blissfulness? It’s true that awakened individuals greatly enjoy being rather than doing. However, while they may spend a lot more time ‘doing nothing’ than other people, they may also be extremely active.
Increased activity usually expresses itself through creativity or altruism—sometimes both. Awakened individuals who are artists tend to be extremely prolific. Awakened authors such as D.H. Lawrence, Walt Whitman, and William Wordsworth all wrote thousands of poems, with almost inexhaustible creative energy. This prolific creativity is possible because there’s little interference between the awakened artist’s own mind and the transcendent source of creativity.
There are also many examples of awakened individuals who have pursued altruistic endeavors with incredible energy and determination. One of the best examples is Florence Nightingale, who effectively created the profession of modern nursing, founding many hospitals and training tens of thousands of nurses. She also initiated many other social reforms, completely revolutionizing approaches to health care and sanitation. A prolific writer too, she was famous for her endless energy, which became known as “Nightingale power.” But what is less well known about her is that she was a deeply spiritual person who wrote several books on Christian mysticism.
No. 4: Wakefulness reveals the world to be an illusion.
In wakefulness, the world actually becomes more real, partly in the sense that it becomes more tangibly real and alive, more vivid and powerfully there, but also in the sense that it becomes infused with spirit. In wakefulness, we realize that there’s no duality, no matter or spirit, no matter or mind. We realize that the physical world and the spiritual world are one, with no distinction. The world is gloriously infused with spirit and gloriously real.
No. 5: Wakefulness reveals the self to be an illusion.
One metaphor that can be used to describe the awakening process is that of the wave and the ocean. In our sleep state, we see ourselves as individual waves, separate from the whole ocean. But when we wake up, we realize our oneness with the ocean, that we are the ocean. We’ve emerged from it and are always part of it. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that we lose our identity as a wave. We can have an identity as a wave at the same time as being part of the ocean—at the same time as being the ocean. We can still function as individuals, with some degree of autonomy and identity, at the same time as being one with the whole universe. You could say that awakening doesn’t mean no-self so much as new self.
No. 6: Wakefulness happens spontaneously. You can’t make an effort to wake up.
According to this viewpoint, spiritual practices and paths aren’t effective because to follow them implies making an effort to awaken and working toward a goal. After all, effort is egoic in nature. It means striving and so strengthens the ego, which means takes you further away from wakefulness. To seek enlightenment is futile and self-defeating.
However, not all spiritual seeking is egoic in this way. There’s a much more deep-rooted and organic impulse to awaken, which doesn’t stem from the ego but from the deepest part of our being. This impulse for growth and expansion completely transcends us as individuals; it’s an evolutionary impulse that is actually hundreds of millions of years old. The urge that so many millions of people feel to explore spiritual teachings and follow spiritual practices and paths is, in most cases, an expression of the same dynamic impulse that has impelled living beings to become more complex and conscious ever since the beginnings of life on Earth. It’s an impulse to expand and intensify consciousness, and progress to a higher-functioning, more integrated state, which is exactly what has been happening to all life forms before us for millions of years through the process of evolution.
No. 7: Awakened people live in a state of continual bliss and ease, free from all suffering and difficulty.
Despite a general sense of ease and other aspects of well-being—such as a sense of appreciation and freedom from ego-isolation and thought-chatter—awakened individuals usually don’t live lives of perfect, continuous bliss.
This is particularly true of the initial stages after sudden awakening. These can be full of confusion and disturbance, which may take years to settle and fade away. But even after a person’s wakefulness has become stable and integrated, difficulties may still arise. The awakened person may not be entirely free of psychological discord. Negative personality traits—such as a lack of self-confidence, or a tendency toward jealousy or guilt—may be ‘carried over’ from their previous state, and may take some time to dissipate. Awakened people may still experience ‘reactive negativity’ to some degree too—for example, get irritated by other people’s behavior, feel upset by family or relationship problems, or worry about health or financial issues. Awakening doesn’t automatically eradicate personality traits, nor does it eradicate all problems.
‘Some degree’ is the important point, of course. Awakened individuals may not be completely free of negativity, but they are certainly more free of it. They are certainly less likely to be negatively affected by external events, and less prone to react habitually to the circumstances of their lives.
No. 8: Wakefulness is the end point of our development. It is the culmination of our development.
Wakefulness is sometimes depicted as the end of our journey, a destination, and culmination. When we attain enlightenment we’re surely safely home, on the other side of the river. We’ve reached a state of complete fulfillment and there’s surely nowhere left go. Why would we want go anywhere else?
But in reality, awakening isn’t the end of the journey but the beginning of a different one. It’s not the end of the road but rather a switch to a different road. Awakened people continue to develop. They continue to find new resources inside themselves, uncover new potentials and energies, and evolve new aspects and depths of their relationships with themselves, with other human beings, and with the world in general.
To learn more about Steve’s research and teaching, find his website at www.stevenmtaylor.com.
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