There are as many paths into and through awakening as there are individuals, and the typical forms of awakening in any particular culture and era may change as well.
Paths of extremes
It seems that a typical awakening in the past went through the five phases outlined by Evelyn Underhill in her studies of Christian mystics, and by the Zen master Tozan.
This is a journey with the following general phases.
- Ordinary human I
Here we are exclusively identified with our human self, as a human being. Our view is naturally dualistic, I vs. other, creation vs. creator, spirit vs. matter, mind vs. body, right vs. wrong, awakening vs. delusion and so on.
This is a phase of becoming familiar with being a human. We learn discernment and how to function more effectively in the world of form. “I” is experienced as this particular human being, an object in the world. There is a great deal of struggle and suffering here, which motivates us to seek something else – which could be temporary comfort or a more “final” way out.
This is a taste of a more awakened state. It can be a glimpse of nonseeking mind, Big Mind/Heart, a sense of no separation with the world of form and/or God, and so on. This wets our appetite for awakening, and leads us on the path.
This is in a way the conception of the awakened Buddha (or maybe the contemplation of the conception).
- Disidentification with human self
This is a phase traditionally describes as one of purification and submission. We gradually – and often painfully – disidentify as a human being and with a dualistic view.
During this period, there are increasingly frequent and deepening glimpses of the absolute, which helps us with the gradual disidentification with the world of form.
This phase is also called the dark night of the senses. We are withdrawing identity from that which can be perceived with the senses, and to formless awareness and the world arising within this formless awareness. This is the gestation period.
- Identification as the absolute
Here we awaken as the absolute, as Big Mind/Hearth. We are now exclusively identified as the absolute, that which is beyond and includes the world of form and all polarities.
We are in a process of deepening familiarity with the absolute and ourselves as the absolute, and we place “I” on the absolute, on Big Mind.
This phase is also known as illumination or the brilliant sun of enlightenment. There may be a sense of accomplishment here, of being special and awakened. There is often a great deal of energy and display of nearly superhuman capabilities and capacity here, to the astonishment and admiration of others.
We are that in which time & space, and the world of form, arises – beyond time and change. And there is a sense that this can never be lost. Which it can’t, but it can appear to be lost – which happens in the next phase.
This is the birth of the awakened buddha, and the infant and child period of the awakened buddha.
- Disidentification with the absolute
Following our identification as the absolute, there may be a fall from grace. A period of disidentification with the absolute.
Everything we found comfort in is taken away – including any sense of awakening, and much of what we don’t want to deal with – in our inner and outer life – comes up. There is a sense of loosing everything, of having no ground anywhere, of being ground to dust. There seems to be not the slightest sliver of hope anywhere.
To the extent we were identified with/as the absolute, and resist this fall from grace, there is a great deal of pain during this phase. This is also known as the dark night of the soul.
This can be seen as the tempestuous, painful and confused teenage years of the awakened buddha. We are loosing our identity as a child, and do not yet what is coming – how our adult life will look. In fact, there don’t seem to be any adult life coming up at all.
- Ordinary human II
This is a gradual deepening and integration of the relative and absolute. A deepening fluidity between being a human being in the world and as Big Mind in which the world unfolds.
There is no fixed “I” anywhere, and a sense of “I” can be temporarily and fluidly placed anywhere depending on the situation.
As we now are familiar with the relative (phase 1) and the absolute (phase 3), and any sense of accomplishment or specialness is ground away (phase 4), there is a sense of ordinariness here.
This is also known as the hazy moon of enlightenment. We now – most often – appear as nobody special, although with a deepening familiarity with and fluidity between the human and Big Mind.
It is the adult and still maturing life of the awakened buddha.
In a way, this is a path of extremes. We go from one extreme to another, until there is finally a deepening integration and sense of ordinariness. It can be quite a rollercoaster ride, although life is that anyway.
Path of oozing
There seems to be another path, one of oozing. We start out mostly or exclusively identified as a human being, and then there is an oozing of the absolute into our lives. This too is associated with ups and downs of course, although maybe less extreme as the other version (?). Our familiarity with ourselves as human being and Big Mind – and the integration of the relative and absolute – is gradually deepened. It is a continuous process.
In most cases, there is probably a combination of the two. There may be overall phases, although not always all listed above or in the same sequence. And within this overall process, there is a continuous process of deepening and integration.
In some cases, the overall phases may be more obvious, and in other cases the oozing and gradual deepening and integration.
In my own case I recognize all the five phases, with the deepening and integration as a thread throughout them (although not so obvious in phase four, which on the surface appeared more as a complete breakdown). Even in phase five, there is a continuing deepening and integration. And quite likely a revisiting of each of the other phases as well.