I keep returning to this topic, partly because it sheds light on my own experiences, and partly because it is not covered very extensively by many others. I am still looking for more information about this, but so far, the only sources I have found are Tozan’s five ranks, Underhill’s Mysticism, and a brief note in Fire from Heaven about the deeksha process.
Tozan and Underhill both outline five phases:
Stable exclusive identity as human self, and a glimpse of something beyond. This initiates the process, in the form of practice or more spontaneous unfolding. This is the “conception” of the awakened buddha.
- Detachment from identity as human self
This is a phase of purification, of submission to what is, in the form of God, Christ or a physical teacher, and often of various forms of practice. This can be a quite painful process, and is often experienced as being pulled apart and of dying. There can also be experiences of disassociation here. We find ourselves as formless awareness distinct from the world of phenomena, and are not quite used to it yet. This is the gestation period for the awakened buddha.
- Identity as Big Mind
Full blown awakening as formless awareness (emptiness) within which the world of form arises (fullness). We find ourselves beyond and including all polarities. There is a tremendous clarity, insight, compassion and often a very high energy and activity level in the world. This is a “superhuman” phase, in the sense of finding ourselves as something else than our human self, and also in our insights and activity level. We are now identified as the absolute. It is an apparently stable awakening, and it seems that it can never go away. This is the “real” I, so how can it change? There are also traces of a sense of accomplishment, of it being somehow special and remarkable, and some subtle arrogance here. We may even think we are beyond karma, since the whole world of time & space now unfolds within me and is me. This is the brilliant sun of enlightenment, and the infant and child stages of the awakened buddha.
- Detachment from identity as the absolute
In the previous phase, we find an identity as the absolute, which – as any identity – is partial. So here, there is a detachment from even this identity. This is often experienced as a terrible fall from grace, a loss of anything that we used to find comfort in. A loss of connection with God or Buddha Mind, a loss of clarity, insights, compassion, ability to meet situations in an “enlightened” way, and so on. We are plunged into everything that was not included in our previous identity. This is the dark night of the soul. Where the dark night of the senses was one of pain and a sense of being pulled apart and dying, this is one of devastation and deep despair. We find ourselves as utterly and helplessly human. Ground to dust. We may find our life fall apart in many or all areas, from our spiritual life to work, relationships, health and so on. There is no comfort anywhere. It is a profoundly humbling phase. And it changes when we finally begin to come to terms with it, when we are able to embrace it as it is. When we find the humility to just be this, a completely ordinary human being in all our vulnerability and weakness.
- Deepening integration
Here, we find a new integration of the relative and the absolute, of our human self and God or Big Mind. This time, it is all coming back in a new way, one that seems completely ordinary and unremarkable. There is a deepening into ourselves as a human self and as Big Mind, and there is no sense of fixed identity anywhere. We are far more fluid in what is expressed and how. In the terminology of the Big Mind process, this is the integrated free functioning human being.
If the process looks similar to these phases, then each phase may last for several years. But as life is far richer and more inclusive and fluid than any model, the process does not always show up in this way either. Sometimes, not all phases occur within a human lifetime. Some of the phases may be combined. There may be phases within phases (for instance, there may be apparently stable awakenings during phase two, any of the other four phases may come up during phase five, and so on). And there are also awakening processes that seem more like phase five from the beginning, a more unremarkable and fluid deepening into the absolute and relative – although even within here the overall process may have characteristics of these five phases.
There is a tremendous richness of and uniqueness in awakenings, each one with a different flavor. And why not? If God awakened to itself in only one way, it would only need to happen once.
But what we see is that it happens over and over. Thousands, millions and billions of times. Always in a unique way, with a different flavor to it.
Awakenings are always new, always different, always fresh. Just as the present.