I never set out to wake up. I wanted to reduce suffering.
I was curious about what was going on.
Doing this, I was thrown into a dark night of the soul, which lasted many years.
That experience culminated in a spiritual awakening. If you’re interested in my whole story, read this article.
Before you continue, remember that each path to awakening is unique. There is no one path. In this article, I am simply sharing what happened.
So above all, trust your own experience, and follow your intuition.
A short warning before you begin: If you are not serious about this kind of awakening, do not continue. This can be destabilizing, because it is a fundamental shift in identity. Sometimes just reading about this can have a profound effect.
So, What is Spiritual Awakening?
When I refer to awakening, I’m talking about what’s called stream-entry (Wikipedia) in Buddhism or kenshō in Zen.
It could also be called first awakening. Different people use different terms to refer to this, so be aware of it.
Before awakening, there is a belief in an unchanging, separate self that thinks, feels, experiences, decides, and makes things happen separate from everything else.
After, it is seen that all of the above are subject to causes and conditions. When the separate self is inquired into, or explored, you only find sensations, sounds, images, tastes, smells, and thoughts.
You do not find an inherent self, a homunculus sitting somewhere in the head or heart controlling things.
Now, before spiritual awakening, you will feel like there is something solid there. The mirage seems real.
This may sound mystical, but in reality it is absolutely ordinary.
There is the recognition that there was never a controller, decider, or doer. This recognition is not intellectual, but experiential. There is a shift in perspective.
You see that things are just happening.
If you try to adopt non-doership as a belief, it will not go well, so if you feel like a doer, then be a doer.
Stages of Awakening
Instead of giving you a general rundown of the stages, I’ll share what my experience was. This is a broad strokes outline of what happened:
- Normal life. For around the first twenty years of my life, everything was normal. Thoughts were real. Beliefs were set in stone. Any discomfort was externalized and blamed on someone or something else. There was a constant seeking to feel good and avoid pain. No awareness. No presence.
- Opening. Interest in lucid dreaming, which led to meditation. I discovered a different world. Health problems were healed naturally and through energy work. I began questioning how things were done. I began to wonder what else wasn’t the way I thought it was.
- Meditation. Meditation deepened. Discovered that the present moment is always here. I am not my thoughts or feelings. I am the dance floor and life is the dance. Thoughts were challenged. I began following my heart.
- Dark night. After years of meditation and inquisitiveness, I found myself in a dark night of the soul. Suddenly everything was meaningless and hopeless. Thoughts were seen as thoughts. Life was empty. No happiness. No purpose. Emotional material bubbled up to the surface. I tried to escape, but eventually I surrendered to it all. I felt everything.
- Inquiry. I began to wonder: Who is suffering? Who am I? This eventually led to examining the five physical senses (seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling, tasting), looking for supposed self that was in such anguish. I could find nothing. All I found were strong sensations that felt like me, but no inherent me.
- Awakening. There was no big bang, no celebration. One day I stood in the kitchen and realized “Oh, there is just this.” And by ‘this’ I was referring to the senses dancing. There was just seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting, smelling, and thinking. The separate self was always an illusion seemingly created when two or more senses became intertwined.
- Deepening. I want to put this here, because this is just the beginning. There’s a reason this is called first awakening. While this is a permanent shift, there are more layers to explore. Each layer becomes obvious when the previous one is seen through.
Again, if you’re interested in my full story in all its detail, you will find it here.
The Path to Spiritual Awakening
There are many paths to spiritual awakening. Once again, I’ll stick to my experience, because that is where I can provide the freshest take.
Looking back, there are four main tools I used leading up to awakening.
1. Feeling Everything
I discovered the power of releasing emotions at the age of 16, if my memory serves me right. I found EFT (tapping). I realized that I could make uncomfortable emotions go away by tapping. That’s all I cared about at the time.
Over the years, I explored many different modalities and techniques for dealing with emotions. Eventually it just became the simple act of feeling everything fully.
The sense of self is often a contraction in the body, a sensation, that is mistaken to be an inherent self. As I released emotions, I began to see that each contraction wasn’t the self.
I didn’t realize it this clearly at the time, but looking back, I see how this began eroding the belief in a doer.
I also discovered that all emotions could be welcomed. There was no need to push away intense sensations. As I relaxed into them fully, and let them expand, there was peace and release.
If there’s one word that resonated with me during this path, it was surrender.
Something from the Tao Te Ching always stayed with me:
The Master does nothing,Tao Te Ching (Stephen Mitchell Translation)
Yet he leaves nothing undone.
The ordinary man is always doing things,
Yet many more are left to be done.
It didn’t make sense logically at the time, but I could feel it. There was something there. I would at times come back and re-read it, and just sit in the feeling.
Going through the dark night of the soul forced me to surrender. I was holding on for dear life. Eventually it was too much, and the only way to survive was to let go.
Trying to be someone. Trying to survive. Trying to push away what I didn’t want. Resisting everything.
All of it had to be surrendered. It was never my job. It didn’t mean I stopped surviving, it meant I stopped the illusion that I was in complete control.
And eventually even the need to surrender falls away.
Self-inquiry was a practice recommended by Ramana Maharshi (Wikipedia).
It is the practice of inquiring into the sense of “I” or “I am.”
Even before the dark night of the soul, I was fascinated by the question: “Who is this?”
When a thought appeared, there was the question: “Who is this?”
After the dark night, self-inquiry intensified, and I began to wonder who was suffering. It never became the sole focus, but it opened the door to direct pointing.
4. Direct Pointing
Direct pointing is looking for the inherent self directly.
You explore direct experience, which is mostly seeing, hearing, and feeling. You look for what you believe yourself to be.
If you feel a sensation in your chest that feels like you, you explore that. You separate the senses, so you can examine each one individually.
This is what Vipassana or mindfulness meditation does. It’s a great option if you’re looking for a meditation practice.
As you practice, you begin to see how the illusion of a separate self is formed. There may be a sensation in the chest, a thought labeling ‘I feel anxious’, a quick movement back to the sensation, and this is how the show starts.
As you pay attention, your sensory clarity increases. Meaning, you are able to notice faster and subtler movements. You notice how attention jumps all over the body while thought is labeling, creating the sense of permanence, and an inherent self.
I will write in more detail about all of the above tools in other articles, so make sure you’re subscribed to the newsletter (see end of post).
This is Not an Easy Path
At least it wasn’t for me.
Although if you’re reading this, you probably don’t care about difficulty. You care about what’s real and what’s not, so to speak.
Even so, you may not be aware that spiritual awakening and healing go hand in hand. As you inquire with more precision, old traumas may begin to surface.
You may suddenly find yourself avoiding practice, having anger outbursts, or isolating yourself from friends and family.
This is a sign that there’s something that needs to be dealt with.
If you have a history of trauma or PTSD, it’s crucial that you have help on this path. There are many modalities that are helpful, such as EMDR, somatic therapy, or any other professional therapist that knows this territory (see Spiritual Emergence Network).
Awakening and trauma are not two things. They often go together. Do not use spiritual awakening and inquiry to bypass your shadows.
The path to spiritual awakening can be confusing.
It’s easy to give away your power, because you don’t know what’s going on.
Yet it’s vital that you trust your own experience. Follow what resonates at a deep level. Let it guide you.
Each path to awakening is unique, so whatever you experience is perfect. Trust it. And trust that inner sense that gently guides you to the next thing to explore.
In reality, it is all just happening, but before truly seeing this, it can be helpful to orient to your inner GPS.
After Spiritual Awakening
Spiritual awakening is not the end.
Read my article on the expectations of awakening to see the common misconceptions.
To see that there is no inherent self is the beginning. In Buddhism they say that you’re now entering the stream that will lead to liberation or enlightenment.
Many may say that this is the end. There is nothing to do. Yet you still suffer. You react. You get irritated. You push and pull on experience.
This is the next step coming to the forefront, namely reactivity. This is a time for emotional work, which eventually leads to equanimity.
I will write more on this topic, but for now, here are some resources that you can explore while you wait.
Some of the below links are affiliate links, which means I get a small share of any purchase with no added cost to you. Thank you in advance.
- Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. An excellent book for not just getting started on this path, but seeing that you are not your thoughts or your emotions.
- The Mind Illuminated by Culadasa (late John Yates). A book for anyone wanting to take the more concentration-focused approach to meditation. This is another one I highly recommend.
- Liberation Unleashed. This is a forum that helps people see through the separate self. You can sign-up for free. Then you wait for a guide, and a conversation begins. It is not a guarantee of awakening, of course, but it is an excellent way to explore.
- Angelo DiLullo on YouTube. Angelo is someone who has traveled the whole path when it comes to the ten buddhist fetters. His YouTube channel contains meditations, interviews, and great content on waking up. He also has a book I recommend: Awake: It’s Your Turn.
Please remember that everything that I’ve shared are more concepts. They aren’t inherently real, which makes this so difficult to write about.
Spiritual awakening is a fundamental shift in identity.
While this article makes the path up to spiritual awakening sound rather dark, which it definitely can be, it also is a tremendous freedom from a large chunk of suffering.
I wouldn’t trade this for anything, and would happily go through the darkness again.
To truly see that there is no inherent self is freeing, yet it is not the end of the path. It is the beginning.
Even so, it can turn your world upside down in a good way. More peace, lightness, and humor are suddenly available.
You see that the burden was never on you to figure life out.
It was always just happening.
All the best,
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