Whether in contemplative circles or the culture at large, the terms enlightenment (more antiquated) or awakening (the more contemporary use) carry with them a radical or seemingly unattainable quality, some kind of perpetual “mountaintop experience” of perpetual wisdom and bliss once we’ve broken through. We might think of some distant sage, revered by followers, doling out wisdom untouched by worldly events.
But for most, the experience, at least from the outside, looks far more ordinary. One of the temptations on the spiritual path is always to romanticize or fetishize an entirely other order of life, rather than imagining a transformed version of our existing everyday context.
One reason awakening is so often misunderstood is it’s difficult to describe using the language of everyday understanding. This is in part why Christ used metaphor to describe the kingdom of God. It’s like a mustard seed. It’s like leaven. It’s like a treasure. In Eastern traditions the story is often about letting go of something, rather than acquiring it. One contemporary teacher describes it as a bank account with millions in it, only we don’t know how to access it. My own experience was an experience of openness
My own experience several years ago was that of prolonged and profound inner strain following by a sudden realization and a profound letting go. Then, a sudden lightness. A joy. An inner charge of energy. A balance and peace and equanimity. An ability to remove attention from the trivial. An acceptance. That state lasted for months. Reading up on others with similar experience, it seems this is a common initial “opening experience” on the contemplative path.
It’s a kind of experience of the fundamental emptiness, of non-attachment, the experience of the absolute, of spaciousness, of the interconnected self beyond form. And yet, we are still situated within the life-world, within a relative everyday social context. And most of us, at some point, get pulled back into that level of awareness with its daily dramas. Then we may temporarily move back into the absolute awareness. At an intermediate level, we tend to shift back and forth at times.
Of course, from the outside, what had changed? The old saying goes “before enlightenment, after enlightenment, chopping wood and carrying water.” That is, seen purely from the external vantage point, things go on as before. And yet, the inner state and how we relate to those externals is radically changed.
The next phase of the contemplative path seems to be integrating this absolute sphere, this spacious backdrop beyond subject-object dualism, beyond name and form and concept and emotion, with its ever-present grace and love, and the relative everyday sphere of names and appointments and stubbed toes and death. It seems to be about entering into the mystery that these two are not separate.
As I reflect back on my own experience and listen to others who’ve walked this path, there seem to be three common elements that facilitate this process of initial awakening.
- Practice: some form of daily contemplative or meditative practice. For some, immersion in silent prayer. This is more than a self asking for things from a divine being. It has to do with letting go of the concepts that keep us separated from God. It could be Centering Prayer. It could be Vipassana. It could be more intense forms of creating an inner space that dissolves or dismantles the ordinary ego we think we are, even for a brief time. This tills the soil and cultivates the inner ground. It’s more of a gradual process that helps make change possible.
- Surrender: this can come about through teaching. It can come about through suffering. It can come about through an act of will. It can come about through realization. It can come about through hitting bottom, through coming to the end of ourselves, through some sort of crisis. Either way, we begin to see any selfish attempt to create conditions for happiness and fulfillment as futile. It’s the realization that our limited emotional programs for happiness won’t get us anywhere, especially when they’re still egocentric. We stop striving and squirming and resenting, and move into a selfless acceptance.
- Service: we find ways in our immediate context of giving in some fashion for the betterment of others. For the spiritual path, this helps us recognize the interconnectedness of all things, it cultivates reverence, compassion, gentleness. We often think of it the other way around. Those who achieve a state of selflessness become do-gooders. Instead, it often starts with a commitment to serve, the act itself, and then the inner change. It’s a far more dynamic process.
Taken together, the three pillars tend to bring about an inner state contemplative teachers call heartfulness. It usually takes a radical inner shift some call awakening. But this awakening is not a state to be acquired, but what’s left when we’ve cleaned out the cobwebs and have a clear sense of perception of who we are and more broadly, the way things are. It’s both gradual discovery and sudden bursts of insight. It’s both self-relinquishment and self-attainment. It’s losing your life to gain your life. And the process is both facilitated by and characterized by some form of practice, surrender, and service.