You hear this phrase a lot in spiritual circles — “waking up” or having a “spiritual awakening.” But what does it mean to “awaken”? The topic can be a bit confusing because awakening can mean many things to different people, and the word and its many variants are often used to describe different experiences. In short, there is more than one type of awakening.*
Boiled down to its most basic principle, awakening is a process that challenges and subverts your framework for understanding the nature of reality. During a stage of awakening, you shift your perspective on how you see the world. In doing so, you jettison an older, more limited framework for understanding the world and incorporate new concepts that you had previously ignored or rejected. A genuine awakening causes you to recognize that much of what you previously thought or understood was quite limited or partial.
Awakening is related to, but distinct from, enlightenment. Enlightenment is a state of being in complete alignment with all that is. In enlightenment, you go beyond all duality, beyond all space and time, to experience the fullness of the universe in both form and beyond form — or in Buddhist parlance, emptiness. This is a place of non-judgment, where the paradoxes between relative and universal truths are understood and resolved. In this state, you are connected with all of life in a state of total and unconditional love. Enlightenment requires awakening, but awakening does not necessarily result in enlightenment.
Let’s look closer at four key stages of awakening: (1) awakening to the constructed nature of society; (2) awakening to the conditioned nature of the mind; (3) awakening to the unseen universe (what might also be called the realm of the Divine); and (4) and awakening to the natural world. There are no doubt other forms of awakening, but these four are often connected, and each one may inform or lead to another.
Awakening to the Constructed Nature of Society
For many people, awakening starts with the realization that the world is a social construct. Many of the categories that we use to understand other people — such as gender, race, and sexual orientation — do not reflect anything “natural” or “essential.” They are, instead, categories that we have, on a collective level, created out of language, and now form part of our how we see the world. The constructed nature of these categories is not always readily apparent, however; they take on the appearance of being fixed and natural. Because there is nothing essential or fixed about them, understanding how they have been constructed is a critical step in imagining and creating new ways of being in the world.
Gender categories, for example, such as “man” and “woman” have for millennia been constructed not to reflect genetic or anatomical differences, but rather, aspects such as presentation (i.e., dress, hair, mannerisms), emotional expression (i.e., certain emotions are “feminine” and others “masculine”), and roles or ways of being in the world (i.e., men and women are qualified to do different tasks or professions). The construction of those categories erases similarities and fortifies differences between them. Crossing the supposedly natural and normal lines between men and women — either through dress or speech or mannerisms or sexuality — has traditionally created certain amounts of social anxiety and discord, leading to the policing of and enforcement of gender norms. Similarly, race and sexual orientation are modern categories that emerged as pseudo-scientific efforts to categorize and distinguish groups of people based on specific traits or qualities.
Now, such categories are firmly rooted in our social consciousness, and they reinforce perceived differences when, in fact, we are far more similar than our identity categories would suggest. Awakening recognizes that those constructions are designed to separate and distinguish us by relying on “differences” that obscure the fact that the world doesn’t divide neatly into simple binaries like “man” and “woman” or “black” and white” or “gay” and “straight.” Gender and sexuality are far more fluid than a fixed binary, and thankfully, our social constructions are shifting to reflect an expanded awareness of more possibilities for how human sexuality and gender can express itself. Trans men and women are now enjoying increased visibility and acceptance, and we now distinguish men and women who were born biologically as male or female and identify as such as “cis-gender.” Many people eschew gender categories altogether.
Awakening in this sense means that a person begins to understand that not only is society constructed, but also that the ways in which it is constructed almost always reflects imbalances of power. This phase is akin to what many people now refer to as being “woke” — a term that has a particular historical association with discrimination against black people and white supremacy in the United States, but thanks in part to the power of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, which popularized the hashtag #staywoke, is now beginning to broaden to encompass a more general awareness of social injustice. Awakening in this sense conveys the sense that a world that once appeared “natural” or simply unseen and hidden from view is now exposed and brought to light — no longer “normal,” society is revealed to have been created to benefit certain members at the expense of others. The claim that things are “just that way” is nothing more than a disingenuous justification that serves the interests of power.
As a result, the institutions that make up our societies often reflect the imbalances and biases attached to those constructions. Being awake in this sense means being aware of the imbalances in access, disparities in income, and discriminatory impacts on different sectors of society.
Our criminal justice system, for example, disproportionately impacts black communities with, among others, racial profiling and prosecuting certain crimes, and black communities routinely face disproportionate environmental hardships and bias in health care. Women still face enormous structural barriers when it comes to professional advancement (that we still haven’t had a female President should leave you gobsmacked). The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have made considerable stride in bringing to light the ways that women are sexually mistreated and abused — and, as Christine Blasey Ford demonstrated in the confirmation hearing for Justice Brett Kavanaugh—not believed when they voice those abuses. As a member of the LGBTQIA community, I can attest that we continue to experience rampant homophobia in the form of religious intolerance, job and housing discrimination, and fears around child adoption. Most recently, trans people were threatened with being stripped of legal protection by the current administration.
We are often blind to our own biases, and this is a critical phase of awakening, where you recognize that we have built a world based on categories of identity that heighten difference and reflect inaccurate and unjust beliefs about a person’s value and right to belong. This first stage of awakening brings to light the deeply embedded disparities that inflict a great deal of injustice on different members of society. In short, you awaken to the recognition of how much suffering there is in the world — and that all of us have blindly participated in it, to varying degrees, until we were woken up.
Awakening to the Conditioned Nature of the Mind
To recognize that our beliefs about the world, which are often reflections of conscious and unconscious bias, are not natural but constructed speaks to the next truth: Our minds are themselves conditioned and constructed. Built from layers of thoughts and beliefs about the nature of reality and what the world means, our minds are programmed to interpret the data that our physical senses provide us. But the truth is, those programs are not necessarily accurate either. In short, our eyes and ears are not always telling us the truth of the world around us.
In this regard, when many spiritual teachers and seekers talk about being “awake,” they are referring to that moment when a person becomes aware of the ego — the little voice in your head that likes to criticize, complain, put you down, put others down and generally create a lot of mischief. At this stage of “waking up,” you realize that you’re not that little voice. The ego isn’t entirely bad — in fact, having a healthy ego is necessary to live in this world — but it tries to help out and keep you safe in ways that are not helpful. Because it’s driven by a lot of fear and judgment, it mostly ends up making you and others feel bad.
When people wake up to this stage, they become aware of how much that little voice has so many thoughts and beliefs about how the world ought to be. These beliefs are the things that the ego uses, like telling you that you’re not good enough, or that you’ll never make enough money, or that life is hard so of course you’re never going to be successful. People who wake up to this aspect of the mind begin to realize how much they are driven by fear — fear of looking bad, fear of failure, fear of judgment from others. Indeed, the ego’s constant rambling is the cause of so much of our emotional grief.
Many people reach this stage of awakening through meditation because it allows them to become acutely aware of how much chatter this little voice makes. Among the many benefits of meditation, once you develop a consistent practice, you can listen to your mind with less intensity and not get caught up in its lies and machinations. You recognize that your thoughts are not reality. Your thoughts are an attempt to make sense of reality. More often than not, those thoughts are anxious and concerned with your security. Our minds are machines caught in interpretive overdrive, constantly trying to make sense of the world by generating meaning.
When you awaken to the conditioned nature of the mind, you become aware of how little accuracy or truth most of your thoughts have. You recognize that many of your beliefs about the world are simply inherited. You notice that your patterned responses to people and events are mechanisms installed at an early age and that are running much of your mental life. Many people stay at this stage, often for their entire lives, managing these aspects of the mind. It’s a very powerful place to be — to see the workings of your mind and recognize that little voice that so powerfully, yet deceptively, shapes how you see and react to the world.
As you continue along this stage of awakening, you will recognize that your mind is not separate from the social construction of reality. This is where the first two stages of awakening come together. You perceive a world that’s constructed because your mind is also part of that construction. Your mind is constructed out of the very categories that make the world a social construction — gender, race, sexual orientation, etc. These categories, and your beliefs about them, are embedded in your consciousness. At this stage of awakening, then, you recognize a fundamental truth: the world as you see it is a reflection of your perception.
It may be an uncomfortable truth, but it is a critical one at this stage of awakening. All of the ways that the world is constructed is part of your consciousness. As a result, you harbor conscious beliefs and unconscious biases about others. Therefore, the purpose of awakening is not simply to let go of your limiting beliefs about yourself (e.g., that you’re not good enough, unworthy or unlovable) and your anxiety about your own security in the world, but also to recognize that your entire mind is a construct, inseparable from the mass consciousness that has created the social realm we all inhabit.
Awakening to the Unseen Universe
So what’s beyond the construction of our minds and the illusory world we share? When you begin to see beyond the veil, the “matrix” begins to reveal itself. This is a phase of awakening that more and more people are finally experiencing. During this stage of awakening, you recognize that you are not solely your mind or your physical body. Instead, you begin to perceive the vastness of the unseen realms of the universe. This is an awakening to the realm of energy.
You are not only your mind and body. You are also energy. You have an energy field that surrounds you, and various energy centers known as chakras that are “located” at various places along the physical body. You have energetic connections to individuals and to unseen entities, such as spirit guides, including your own soul. This form of awakening can lead you to all manner of connections with psychics, intuitives, and energy healers.
Many people already understand energy in the form of emotions. One of the key ways that you emit energy is by constantly putting out certain emotional energy to the rest of the world and coming into contact with other people’s emotional energy. The result is that sometimes we experience emotional energy that isn’t directly our own, such as sadness or anger. We all know what it feels like to be in a room where the tension is so thick you could cut it with a knife. If you are in a crowded subway and start to feel angry for no obvious reason, it might be because a number of people are putting out that same energy. In time, you learn to take care of your own field to avoid interacting with or blending with others’ fields and taking on their emotional energy.
But the world of energy goes far deeper than the energy of emotions. One of the most transformative moments of my life was when I encountered my future teacher, Mirabai Devi. Her gift is the ability to “push” Light into people — extremely high amounts of Light. The first time I worked with her, I fell flat on the floor as the Light began to stream into the space between my brows (i.e., my third eye). I was filled with bliss, unlike anything I had experienced on the meditation cushion. I felt perfect, wrapped in a cocoon of love, for about 24 hours, and then the energy faded.
The following summer I met Amma, who is known as the “hugging saint.” She is considered by her devotees to be an incarnation of the Divine Mothers. I waited patiently in line for many hours, and was at the very front of the room for her lecture. When she walked in, I was overwhelmed with the feeling of love — even though it was the first time I had laid eyes on her. Amma gives darshan (a Sanskrit term meaning “vision of God”) in the form of hugs — that’s her mode of energy transfer. When she hugged me, I began to sob, heaving and wailing like a little kid, and then was filled with bliss, and I sat in corner glowing until I was able to relate to time and space again.
All of this was the beginning of my awakening to the world of energy and the marvels of the unseen universe. I undertook an apprenticeship with my teacher, and learned all about the chakras and began to deeply cleanse my thoughts and emotions so that my own energy field began to clear and expand. Near the end of that three-year tutelage, I underwent one of the most dramatic experiences a person can have: a kundalini awakening.
In the traditional Hindu system, kundalini represents the dormant spiritual energy at the base of the spine. It’s typically depicted as a coiled, sleeping serpent. When it awakens, it travels up the spinal column, through the chakras, opening them up to intense amounts of spiritual energy. This is not a process that can be willed or forced without risk of serious psychic damage; it happens only when the kundalini is ready to rise.
The kundalini awakening for me began with a hot ball of energy, like a piece of searing red-hot coal, moving from the base of my spine through each of the chakras, pausing as if working through blockages, followed by a sudden expansion in which the energy would fill that area of my body and then move onto the next chakra. At times it was painful, at others blissful; sometimes my body would shake, rattle and roll in spontaneous movements known as kriyas. I went from sweating and breathing heavily to feeling wrapped in a blanket of bliss. This process happened multiple times a day for hours on end for over 2 months, and then began to subside, continuing with regularity at least another 6 months. Now and again, my kundalini re-awakens, and more chakra expansion occurs.
One month into this first awakening, I experienced yet another awakening. In the middle of one of my kundalini sessions, my crown chakra opened and connected with divine energy in a way that I had never experienced. I heard a very powerful, authoritative yet loving voice say, “We are going to write, and we are going to write quickly.” A few days later, I began to channel spiritual wisdom from a collective of Light beings who called themselves “The Council of Light.” When the channeling began, I would feel these raindrops of energy cascading onto the top of my head, and words would just flow onto the page. I would type frantically, jotting down everything they said as quickly as I could. They taught me about the nature of human consciousness and esoteric aspects of our existence like the function of time. In 6 months, I had three book-length volumes of writing, two of which have already been published, and a third is due out next year. That awakening completely altered how I related to the world around me and to the idea of connection to a much broader universe than I had encountered.
Awakening to the Natural World
Awakenings to the realm of the unseen and divine energies are powerful, but they are not the only forms of awakening that challenge our perceived reality of what it means to be human. In fact, the natural world that we inhabit is often under-appreciated for its capacity to elevate our consciousness.
For some people, awakening occurs when you recognize the suffering of animals. You realize that animals are not devoid of thought or feeling. You recognize that they experience enormous suffering and mistreatment, particularly those animals that are raised for food. Rather than seeing animals as livestock whose sole purpose is consumption by humans, you start to view them as sentient creatures with their own consciousness and right to autonomy.
Others might develop a deep connection to the Earth and Mother Nature, whether through a connection to trees and plants, or through farming, or other forms of caring for and cultivating the animal kingdom. Protection of the environment becomes a paramount concern at this stage of awakening. There are some people that have had such powerful awakenings that they connect to the consciousness of the plant and animal kingdom itself, understanding and experiencing how different plants and animals perceive the world around them; in this regard, I highly recommend Jacqueline Freeman’s The Song of Increase and her intuitive connection to bees, and Michael Roads’ works on nature).
As a spiritual tradition, shamanism is one of the most potent sources of wisdom about the Earth and Mother Nature. Shamans derive much of their knowledge from working directly with the energy of the plant and animal worlds, with full appreciation for how the Earth itself is a living, conscious being. If you work with trained, authentic shamans, you can become aware of your spirit animals, experience profound states of consciousness, and connect deeply with the natural world.
For me personally, no experience in the Shamanic tradition has been more powerful than the consciousness raising that occurs with the consciousness-altering plant known as ayahuasca. Technically illegal in the United States, ayahuasca has become very trendy, with scores of people traveling to South America to go on retreats. If you take ayahuasca under the guidance of an experienced shaman, the plant can offer a profound and dramatic experience. By contrast with the blissful and uplifting energies found through Light work or darshan or kundalini awakenings, ayahuasca is, based on my experience, like drinking liquid death — almost as if Kali, the Hindu goddess of destruction had poured herself into a shot glass. A very powerful purgative known affectionately as la abuela (“grandmother”) or just “Mother,” she is compassionate but not tender. “Mother Aya” takes you where you need to go and literally forces out what no longer needs to be there.
I experienced ayahuasca with Shipibo shamans deep in the Amazon in Peru. Each night was a form of death, but in a truly awesome psychedelic fashion. When you are on ayahuasca, your mind is taken to unseen higher dimensions and you experience aspects of reality that you cannot otherwise reach with your normal, daily consciousness. The first night I confronted an emotional death, and my world essentially dissolved. I spent the first few hours wailing in tears as I witnessed all of my loved ones taken away from me and we reviewed all of the important relationships that needed to be addressed. The second night was a physical death in which I spent hours writhing in pain, until it was made clear to me that I was re-experiencing every bit of left-over pain carried in my cells from previous lifetimes. Slowly, over the next couple of hours, I went through a complete rebirth, emerging from a spiritual birth canal and being given language again. The third night was a complete rewiring of my mind. I spent the whole night babbling nonstop, telling every secret or uncomfortable thought I had never told, all of it shared with my fellow travelers, as Mother Aya dissolved portions of my ego that I needed to be released. In sum, each night was a form of death and rebirth —of my heart, my body, and my mind.
Throughout the entire process, though, I was connected with the natural world in a way that I had never been connected. When I stepped outside, the world hummed and buzzed with an energy and a beauty I had never seen. I could sense and see the flow of energy throughout the entire jungle around me. And in that was a key lesson: we are nature. But our negative thoughts and emotions — carried over through lifetimes — are not natural at all, and this is what gets purged in such a dramatic fashion during an ayahuasca ceremony (as well as through Light work and meditation). We are not separate from the natural world, but our constructed minds tell us otherwise. It is when we return to our true nature — pure, loving energy (the Divine) in a physical form (Nature)— that we become whole again.
At its core, the spiritual path is awakening to our minds and the world we have constructed out of them, based on inaccurate beliefs. Our eyes and minds often deceive us when they tell us what the world looks like. And it is possible — but not easy — to undo our mind’s conditioning and the world’s construction. It takes enormous dedication and persistence to experience each of these stages of awakening.
Along the way, it is critical to remember that awakening is a process, not an event, and that each person’s path to awakening is unique to them. A key aspect of that process is that the more you learn, the less you need to impose your learning on others — humility becomes a key value. You cannot force another person to awaken. It happens when the mind is ready to accept and experience an aspect of reality that the person was unaware of or unable to acknowledge. We all can appreciate the resistance that comes when someone tries to convince you that they have the truth. Trust that each person is on their own path to awakening, whatever that looks like for them.
It is also helpful to remember that little is to be gained from comparing how “awake” you are to others. Awakening is not a linear process; the order I presented here reflects my own experience, but is by no means true for everyone. You don’t progress predictably through each of these stages; not everyone experiences each one, or if they do, in the same manner. Some will awaken to society’s constructed nature but never grapple with their own conditioned minds. Some will experience the unseen realms of the universe, but never move beyond the self to grapple with society’s constructs. Each of these stages can and should inform the others, but the truth is that this doesn’t happen for everybody.
Nor is the process ever really over. Because we are all living in this soup of mass consciousness, we have to remind ourselves again and again to commit to undoing the mind’s construction, that we are not what our minds and our senses tell us. There is always more to see and uncover about the ways we have constructed our world based on bias, discrimination, and misguided beliefs. When you have awakened to our true nature as energy, then you can see the mind and our society as constructs and relate to them differently. You can see clearly why the world is the way it is. We have made it is this way, and it is our collective task to reshape the world to reflect our true nature as the highest form of energy there is: unconditional love. For that to happen, we all need to wake up — and to stay awake — so that more and more of humanity can experience their own awakening.
- Nota bene: I have included links on occasion for certain topics where I felt that some additional source material might benefit or be of interest to a reader. This is not meant to be a scholarly article, and therefore I do not pretend to be exhaustive in my research, nor do I in any way represent that the links are the best or most current research.