This is the billion-dollar question, one that defies words. What we can say is this: central to the experience of awakening is a way of experiencing life that completely transcends the usual.
Most people believe that Christ realization, Buddhist awakening, and the paths of the shaman are different, and perhaps this is true. However, the principle — the idea that there is a state, a way of being, that transcends the normal idea of consciousness or self-awareness in daily life — is common to all three, as well as to every serious spiritual discipline. Awakening is a state that transcends our egos and our ordinary conscious perception.
Shamanistic cultures pursued awakening through mind-altering practices and substances that opened the doors of perception to other ways of experiencing life. These ‘altered states’ provide the adept with means of perception and experience that are different from our conditioned patterns. In Christian practice, the same ends were achieved through prayer, fasting and work. In Buddhism, it was done through meditation and karma yoga (active meditation in the form of service).
Our usual self … and transcending it through awakening
People’s usual day-to-day consciousness is rooted in familial and societal conditioning, which may focus on education, a social or moral code (unfortunately this can often be superficial), work, career, friends and so on.
The vehicle through which we manage this conditioning is what we call ‘me’, also known as the ‘self’. The standard definition of ‘us’ is the body collective that agree with ‘me’, and ‘them’ are those who disagree or do it differently. Our day-to-day consciousness is determined by the self, which is developed from about two years of age and onward, and cemented over time by our perceived need to protect and promote this self. The self’s successes are measured in terms of work, relationships, hobbies, interests, etc., and its worries are about anxiety, failure, loneliness and so on. As we can easily observe, all of these diverse aspects — work, hobbies, failure, loneliness — tie directly back to a sense of self.
Awakening is the transcendence of this onerous self-obsession, freeing us up to experience life in such a way that this self is a balanced, holistic supporting actor, rather than an afflicted, narcissistic star. This transcendence is truly beyond words, but attempts to describe it have included terms like: emptiness (the good kind) or spaciousness, clarity, luminescence, bliss, non-clinging and all sorts of other marvelous things.
Let’s look at these terms.
Characteristics of Awakening
Emptiness or spaciousness does not indicate absence, nor destruction. As an example, a bowl that is empty of apples normally means that the apples have been removed (absence) or they have been eaten (destroyed). But in the case of awakening, emptiness means that the apples are still in the bowl and yet are also permeated by emptiness.
Think quantum physics: an atom is mostly space, but nevertheless if I bang the table that is made of atoms, my hand will still feel it. So the mind that normally feels the solidity of the table is also free to experience the essence of the table as a collection of atoms with space between them. This is emptiness.
If we apply this to our feelings and emotions as well, it’s easy to see that emptiness is not a negative dread, but rather a potential wonder.
Clarity, luminosity and bliss
‘Clarity’ means that whatever we picture in the mind is clear by nature. I can say, ‘Imagine a pink elephant’, and it arises in our minds immediately! Whether or not the visualization of the elephant is clear is not important; our minds still conceive it clearly.
A ‘luminous’ state of mind means that no matter what we put in our minds, it is lit up, like the pink elephant. The light is built into whatever we hold in our minds.
‘Blissful’ means that all of this has the potential to be fun: pink elephant, clear-blue sky, mother-in-law, whatever. It’s important here to note that even unpleasant things lose their potency and are potential vehicles of bliss, simply because the possibility of changing the objects and the nature of the objects in our minds lays within our power.
The nature of existence is struggle
These points about the characteristics of awakening also reveal some underlying aspects of ‘reality’. For instance: everything is impermanent (which is very scary to the ego); all formations are in a dialectic struggle to last and endure; and all formations are simultaneously and inescapably destined to vanish (unless someone discovers a formula for escaping death).
Because of these three conditions there can be no fixed, permanent and lasting self identity — a fact that is also very unsettling to the ego.
And there’s a solution! Awakening and meditation
Some of us may recognize the above points as three of the Four Noble Truths. The fourth is that there is a way out of this struggle: the path of ‘dharma’, or the teachings of the Buddha. As mentioned at the beginning of this article, today we know that all spiritual traditions that have survived for significant portion of human history have at their core some version of what Buddhism calls ‘awakening’, Christianity calls ‘Christ consciousness’, and other traditions call (for example) ‘being one with the universe’.
Awakening and the practices of awakening that are known as ‘Dharma’ in Buddhism are accomplished in part via meditation, which we explore further in the article ‘how to meditate’.
By Doug Duncan and Catherine Pawasarat.