Demystifying awakening

 

Many see awakening as something mystical or even mythical, and some ideas about it are not well-grounded in reality: It doesn’t exist. It’s for a few special people. There is no way to understand what it’s about. It’s a state of endless bliss. It will solve all your problems. You need to “renounce the world”. We can’t do research on it because it doesn’t exist, it’s too nebulous, or it has no practical value.

Fortunately, we live in a period of history where awakening is demystified. Why do we see this demystifying?

Many Asian spiritual teachers ended up in California and other densely populated areas of the US in the mid-1900s. It means that some practitioners there have a lifetime of experience, some have become teachers themselves, and the teachings are adapting to the culture. And since the US culture is famously pragmatic, it’s often explored, understood, and spoken about in a pragmatic way.

Since the 90s, there is new ease of global communication. Although awakening happens relatively rarely, large numbers of people around the world are on an awakening path, and these are now able to connect, communicate, and share experiences. In the past, people would have to be in the same place or write letters to communicate, and write or read books in order to share information and thoughts. Now, we just need to go on a forum online, participate in an online conference, class, or sharing group, or connect with friends we have found around the world.

There is also more research on spiritual practices and I imagine this will only continue but grow and become more mainstream. There is even research on awakening, and I imagine this will continue and grow as well.

Secularized forms of traditional spiritual practices are becoming more widespread and used in medical and business settings. It’s not uncommon to have mindfulness classes in hospitals and workplaces. This is not about awakening, but it contributes to normalize the practices and develop a pragmatic language in talking about some of the effects.

As mentioned above, more people are using a pragmatic language to describe and explore awakening. A language stripped of traditional terminology, and one that is more easily accessible and understandable to the western mind. This goes along with what I – in other articles – call a small or psychological interpretation of awakening.

Modern forms of traditional inquiry – like the Big Mind process, Headless experiments, and Living Inquiries – can give just about anyone a taste of what awakening is about within a few minutes. It’s not distant or unapproachable anymore.

A more pragmatic and demystified view on awakening is perhaps not only inevitable but healthy and appropriate for a western culture that’s mainly secular and pragmatic.

I am personally grateful. When the initial awakening happened for me, it was in the pre-internet era and it took a long time for me to find people who understood – first in books (Meister Eckart was the first) and later with people (my friend BH and Jes Bertelsen’s then-wife). And I am grateful for the pragmatic and more secularized language. It helps us see what’s important and perhaps what’s less important (although we need to be open to the possibility that some of what we discard is important and bring it back in again).

If all language around spiritual practice and awakening would go secular and pragmatic, something essential would be lost. But there is little or no danger of that happening anytime soon. Spiritual language and understanding, and secular language and understanding, can very well co-exist and they can feed into and inform each other in a beautiful way. There is a richness in the traditions that can inform the secularized understanding. And there is a pragmatism in the secularized approach that can benefit the traditions.

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Is mysticism mysterious?

 

Is mysticism mysterious?

It’s certainly presented that way in popular culture. And perhaps for a couple of reasons. There isn’t a widespread understanding of what it’s about, so it naturally may seem a bit mysterious. And what it’s about isn’t so easy to put into words. 

And yet, it’s not inherently mysterious. Not any more than most things. At least when we have had a taste of it. 

As I like to say, it’s about noticing what we are, which is what our experience happens within and as. We can call this the awakeness (or consciousness) all content of experience happens within and as. And from here, it does seem as if the whole world is this awakeness. It seems that this awakeness is what takes all these forms, and locally may temporarily take itself to be a separate being – even if the ultimate identity of everything is this awakeness.

Most can have an immediate and direct taste of this through, for instance, forms of inquiry such as the Big Mind process or the Headless experiments. (Some also do by using psychoactive substances but I wouldn’t recommend that.) And after this taste, most of us will need to clarify and stabilize and learn to live from it over a long period, usually for the rest of our lives. 

As with most things, we can explore this endlessly. For those who us who have, for whatever reason, a fascination with this, it’s an endless exploration. 


Demystifying our experience

 

Inquiry is, at least partly, about demystifying our experience.

We may have a recurrent stressful thought or feeling, and don’t know what it’s really about, where it comes from, or what we can do about it.

Inquiry can help us see how it’s created by our mind at a more basic level.

I have had a vague sense of dread come up. When I look at it, I see that it’s made up by a set of mental images out in front of me with fuzzy dark shapes and textures. These are connected to words such as “it’s a disaster” and “something is terribly wrong”. And these images and words are associated with certain sensations in my body.

As I look at each of these, I see how the experience is created. By asking simple questions of each image and set of words, and the sensations, I get to see that none is a threat. I also see that the images are images, the words are words, and the sensations are sensations. I can also more easily feel the sensations as sensations, and rest with them. All of this releases the reality and solidity that seemed to be there.

My experience of the vague threat and dread is, in a sense, demystified, although I know there may be more there. I am OK with more coming up, since I know I can look more intentionally at that too.

Some aspects of the experience are demystified. And that doesn’t mean there isn’t mystery here too. It’s all a mystery, even if I see – to some extent – how my mind creates a certain experience. It’s amazing that something is here at all. It’s amazing that these experiences are here visiting. It’s amazing there is awareness to experience what’s here.

Demystifying and mystifying

 

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In most areas of life, demystifying that which can be demystified is a practical and sensible approach. (Or so we think in our culture, so why not play along?)

Most spiritual teachers today do a good job demystifying mysticism. They use a clear and direct language. They use a practical approach. They often describe direct experience instead of relying exclusively on traditional – and sometimes confusing – terminology.

And by doing this, what is truly mystifying is left even more obviously mystifying.

Something is. What can be more amazing?

And I don’t know. A story may appear functional in a practical sense, but it is still a story. A story may appear to point to what I am, but it doesn’t really. Even when what I am is awake to itself, that is all that is known. And even that is mystifying.

So it can be helpful to demystify that which can be demystified, such as maps and pointers, leaving what is truly mystifying still mystifying.

And it may be less helpful to do the reverse. To mystify that which can be clear. And to demystify – by taking stories about it as true – that which is genuinely mystifying, which is everything.

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