What does it mean to be enlightened or spiritually awakened?
I don’t think there’s anything particularly esoteric about the state, and I don’t associate it with religions. I think of it as a shift into a more expansive, higher-functioning state of being – a state in which we experience a strong sense of connection with the world around us and other beings, a sense of inner quietness and spaciousness, and a heightened awareness of our surroundings. The state isn’t without its challenges, particularly in its early stages (when there may be some confusion and psychological disturbance) but in general it brings an enhanced sense of ease and well-being. It’s quite common for people to shift into this state after intense psychological turmoil. In my book Out of the Darkness, I describe many examples of this. It is also not uncommon for people to move towards this state slowly and gradually, over many years of spiritual practice (such as meditation) or through following specific spiritual paths, such as the eightfold path of Buddhism or a monastic lifestyle.
What are the three different types of wakefulness?
First of all, there is natural wakefulness. For a small minority of people, wakefulness is simply their natural, normal state. They were always in a state of wakefulness, without undergoing a sudden transformation and without following spiritual practices and paths. These people often become creative artists, like poets and painters.
Secondly, there is gradual wakefulness. This happens to people who follow spiritual practices or paths, or it might just happen as a result of their lifestyle, or events that happen to them. Wakefulness occurs gradually over years and decades. They gradually move into a more expansive and intense state of being.
Finally, there is sudden wakefulness. As I just mentioned, some people undergo a sudden and dramatic shift into wakefulness. Most frequently, this happens in the midst of intense psychological turmoil e.g. a diagnosis of cancer, bereavement, addiction etc. The turmoil breaks down a person’s normal sense of identity, and this enables a new sense of identity to emerge inside them. They shift a more expansive, higher-functioning state of being – in other words, into the wakeful state.
How can we tell the difference between fraudulent spiritual teachers and the genuinely awakened?
It’s a question of finding out whether they possess all of the characteristics of wakefulness. Some of the characteristics of the state are well known – a sense of well-being, a transcendence of separation, a quiet mind, heightened awareness. But there are some less well known characteristics – e.g. awakened people don’t have a sense of group identity, or feel the need to acquire possessions or wealth or power. They don’t feel the need to be admired, or feel hurt by criticism. They live very morally, without exploiting anyone.
So if a so-called spiritual teacher doesn’t display these characteristics then you should question whether they are genuinely awakened. Typical signs of a fraudulent teacher include living an accumulative lifestyle, needing followers around them to make them feel important, behaving immorally, not living altruistically or showing compassion, being wounded by slights, cultivating a sense of group identity amongst their followers, and showing signs of prejudice or enmity towards other groups. If your teacher shows any of these characteristics then you can be sure that they are not awakened.
How do different theories of consciousness explain (or try to debunk) mystical (or awakening) experiences?
Some psychologists and neuroscientists think that awakening experiences can be explained in terms of brain activity – that is, they are caused by abnormal types of activity in different parts of the brain, producing more intense perception, a lack of subject-object boundaries etc. In other words, they are a kind of hallucination.
I think this is highly dubious. For a start, the assumption that the brain is the source of our conscious experience is dubious. Some scientists assume that the brain gives rise to consciousness, just because they can’t think of any way of explaining it, but despite decades of intensive research, no one has the slightest idea how this might occur. In philosophy, this is called the ‘hard problem’ of how the soggy gray mass of the brain could give rise to the amazing richness and variety of our conscious experience. In fact, it’s just as to reverse this suggest that, if there are any particular brain states associated with awakening experiences, these states could be produced by the experiences themselves, rather than the other way around.
As a psychologist I’ve never been particular interested in studying the brain, and working how it which parts of it are active or inactive in different states. To me, that’s like studying a map of a place rather than exploring it as a reality.
Wakeful states exist in themselves, as experiences, and can’t be reduced to – or explained away in terms of – neurological activity.
Is it possible to awaken through psychedelics?
Psychedelics can definitely generate temporary awakening experiences, but it’s very unlikely that they will bring about a shift into permanent wakefulness. The reason for this is that psychedelics work by dissolving away our normal sense of self, and putting its psychological mechanisms out of action. This can cause temporary awakening experiences, but permanent wakefulness can only occur if there is a new sense of self to replace the normal one. It’s not enough to dissolve the sense of self – a new self has to replace it.
In fact, the danger of the regular use of psychedelics is that the structures of the normal mind permanently dissolve away, without anything to replace them, and so there’s just a psychological vacuum, or a state of psychosis. And unfortunately there have been many cases of this. In fact, you could say that this is really the only permanent psychological change which the regular use of psychedelics can bring: not awakening, but psychosis.
Having said that, I think psychedelics can have a positive effect, if they are used carefully. Although they rarely bring about permanent transformation, they can sometimes cause a shift in values and perspectives, make people see the world in a different way and re-evaluate their lives. They can provide a glimpse into a more intense reality that makes them realise that their normal view of life is limited. This sometimes creates an interest in spiritual practices and traditions, as a way of trying to recapture this vision of the world in a more integrated way. Look at Ram Dass! He’s the best example of this – a Harvard psychologist who took LSD, re-evaluated his life, became a spiritual seeker, and eventually one of the most inspired spiritual teachers of our time.
Are children naturally awake?
Yes! Certainly young children. Some spiritual traditions associate childhood with wakefulness, and see spiritual development as a matter of recovering qualities of our childhood state. The Dao De Ching advises us to ‘Return to the state of the infant.’ One of Jesus’ most famous sayings is ‘unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.’
Children definitely have many of the characteristics of the wakefulness state – more intense perception, well-being, a strong sense of connection to the world around them, heightened energy, a lack of the need for group identity, of the need to accumulate, and so on. However, there are some significant differences between childhood wakefulness and the kind of wakefulness we attain as adults. For example, children don’t possess characteristics intense compassion, or inner quietness and stability. So children are naturally awake, but they’re not awake in quite the same way as adults. It’s a kind of immature wakefulness, which isn’t as wide-ranging as mature wakefulness.
What are the signs that the human race is undergoing a collective awakening?
I would say that there are five signs. The first four relate to individual experiences of wakefulness.
First of all, wakefulness seems to be natural for a small minority of people. There are some people who aren’t awake due to a sudden transformation, or to decades of regular spiritual practice – wakefulness is simply their normal, natural state.
The second sign is that temporary awakening experiences are very common, and seem to getting more common. As I showed in my previous book, Waking from Sleep, it’s very common for people to have temporary glimpses of the wakeful state, often when they’re inactive and relaxed, and their minds become quiet and calm. For a few moments, our normal ‘sleep’ state slips away and the wakeful state emerges, like the sun from behind a wall of clouds.
The third sign is that more and more people are feeling a strong impulse to awaken. More and more people seem to sense instinctively that something is wrong with their normal state of being. They’re aware that they’re asleep, and they want to wake up. This suggests that our sleep state is losing its hold over us.
The fourth sign is that awakening occurs so spontaneously and easily in response to psychological turmoil. As I’ve said before, it’s not uncommon for people who go through intense stress and turmoil to undergo a sudden shift into the wakeful state. Their previous identity dissolves away, and a new self emerges, like a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis. In my research, I’ve always been amazed at how common this phenomenon is, and I think that it’s becoming more common.
Finally, there are cultural signs that this shift is underway. These have been growing for the last three hundred years or so. Since the 18th century, in many parts of the world, there has been a growing sense of empathy, compassion and fairness. There has been an increasing recognition of the rights of different groups, including animals. There has been a reconnection to nature, to the human body, and an openness to sex, And particularly over recent decades, there has been a massive (and still growing) upsurge in interest in spiritual philosophies and the spread of spiritual practices such as meditation, yoga, and other techniques of self-development. Everywhere there are signs of a movement beyond both ego-isolation and egocentrism, a growing sense of connection and empathy.
Even if this process is a gradual and fitful one — and even if it may appear to be still in its early stages — we appear to be in the process of waking up.
Steve Taylor’s is the author of The Leap: The Psychology of Spiritual Awakening. His previous books include The Calm Center, Out of the Darkness, and Waking from Sleep. A senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Beckett University and one of Mind, Body, Spirit magazine’s “100 Most Spiritually Influential People,” he lives in Manchester, England. His website is www.stevenmtaylor.com
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