Understanding awakening in an atheist and materialistic context

No matter what worldview we prefer, it can be helpful to also understand awakening in an atheist and materialistic context.


I’ll give the short version I often use in these articles.

In one sense, we are a human being in the world. It’s not wrong and it’s an assumptions that helps us orient and function in the world.

And when we look a little closer in our own first-person experience, we may find something else. Especially if we are guided by effective inquiries and guides familiar with the terrain.

I find I am more fundamentally capacity for any and all of my experiences. I am capacity for the world as it appears to me. I am capacity for this human self and anything connected with it.

I am what the world, to me, happens within and as. I am the oneness the world, to me, happens within and as.


This can be a glimpse, and this noticing can also become a habit. Throughout the day, we may notice this whenever we remember.

When it becomes more of a habit, we can explore how to live from this noticing. How is it to live from oneness? How is it to live from oneness in this situation? This is a lifelong exploration and new things will always be revealed.

And when the noticing is more of a habit, and we explore how to live from, something else tends to happen. And that’s a transformation of our human self. It’s a transformation of our perception, life in the world, and our human self and psyche. Whatever was formed within and still operates from separation consciousness (which is often a lot) comes to the surface with an invitation for it to align with oneness noticing itself.


We may also discover that there is a logic to what we find.

If we “have” consciousness, then to ourselves we must BE consciousness. Consciousness is not some appendix we somehow have like we have arms, legs, and organs. It’s what we are in our own experience.

To us, the world and any experience happen within and as consciousness. The world and any experience, to us, happens within and as the consciousness we are.

Consciousness is inherently one and cannot be divided. (Although what happens within its content can obviously be divided.) And that means that the world, to us, happens within and as the oneness we are.

This also means that, to us, the world appears similar to a dream. It happens within and as consciousness, just like a dream (and any experience).


What does this discovery allow us to say something about?

We can say something about what we are in our own immediate experience, and not so much else.

For instance, we cannot say if the nature of reality – of all of existence – is the same as our own nature.

It will inevitably appear that way since the world, to us, happens within and as the consciousness we are. It appears to us as if the world is consciousness. We may even call it Spirit or the divine or God. But we cannot know that for certain.


This leads us to the psychological (small) and spiritual (big) interpretations of awakening.

In the psychological interpretation, we talk about it as I do above. We keep it to our own experience, and we don’t generalize to the nature of existence itself.

In the spiritual interpretation, we take it one step further. We assume that our nature is the nature of all of existence. We assume all of existence is consciousness and what we can call Spirit, the divine, Brahman, God, and so on.

The spiritual interpretation is most common, perhaps because awakening has traditionally been talked about in the context of religions and spiritual traditions, and these use the spiritual or big interpretation of awakening.


There is a value in the psychological or small interpretation of awakening as well.

It fits a range of different worldviews, perhaps nearly all of them. (I am sure it’s possible to come up with some that don’t fit but I cannot think of any of the common ones that don’t fit.)

It even fits an atheist and materialistic worldview. In our own experience, we are consciousness. That’s the reality in our own first-person view. And from a third-person view, it may well be that the most fundamental nature of reality is matter.

Taking this into account has value for those of us already exploring awakening. It helps us see that many worldviews may fit our experience. It helps us hold any preferred worldview a little more lightly. It gives us a common language to use when we speak with people from other backgrounds. And each worldview we explore may give us useful insights and pointers for our views and general and even how we live our life.

And it also has value in a more general sense. It makes awakening more available to more people. If it’s presented in a non-religious and non-spiritual context, then new groups of people may get curious about it. Some may even wish to explore it for themselves since they realize it may be compatible with their existing and familiar worldview. It’s more of an add-on or a nuance than a replacement.


So which one is more correct? The psychological or spiritual interpretation?

The psychological interpretation is safer. It stays with our own experience and doesn’t make assumptions beyond that. It allows us to consider different worldviews, hold them all more lightly, and find the value in each. It is, in many ways, more intellectually honest. It makes awakening available to more people. It goes to the essence of what mystics across times and cultures describe and can provide a common language for people from different traditions.

The spiritual interpretation may be more familiar to many. It may be more inspiring. And I personally suspect it may be more accurate. There are hints suggesting just that. (Sensing and healing at a distance, ESP, premonitions, synchronicities, and so on.)

On an awakening path, many of us experience things that best fit the big or spiritual interpretation of awakening.

And on a collective level, the more prudent approach is to hold that one lightly as well.

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Awakening doesn’t require any spirituality or religion, and is compatible with (philosophical) materialism

As far as I can tell, the essence of awakening is completely compatible with materialism. And that’s a very good thing. It makes it more accessible to more people.


Awakening is to notice what we are in our own first-person experience.

Yes, I am this human self in the world. And more fundamentally, in my own first-person experience, I am capacity for the world as it appears to me. I am what my sense fields – which contains this human self and the wider world – happen within and as.

Here, there is oneness. My sense fields – containing this human self and the wider world – is a seamless whole. Any sense of boundaries comes from my overlay of mental representations. To myself, I am that oneness.

And from there, there is that love that’s independent of states or feelings. There is stillness & silence, all my experiences are that stillness & silence, and I find it’s what I more fundamentally am.

What I am is, if we want to label it that way, consciousness. To me, all my experiences happen within and as consciousness. So all I see and know is consciousness, taking all the different forms of this human self and the wider world.

All of this is the essence of what mystics from all the major traditions, and outside of any tradition, describe. It fits their reports.


I only know the world through myself. To me, the world is how it appears to me in my sense fields. To me, it happens within and as this consciousness that is my more fundamental nature. To me, the world has the same nature as myself.

Since I, most fundamentally am capacity for the world, consciousness, and one, it appears to me that the rest of existence is that way as well.

It has to be that way. And it doesn’t mean that this is how the world actually is. It doesn’t mean that the world shares the same nature as I find I have in my own experience.


materialism (philosophy) – the theory or belief that nothing exists except matter and its movements and modifications.

I can find my own more fundamental nature, and that doesn’t help me say what the fundamental nature of all of existence is. It may well be that the materialist view is the correct one.

To myself, I inevitably have to be consciousness, the world to me happens within and as this consciousness, and the world then appears as consciousness.

And, in reality, it may well be that the world is most fundamentally matter, and that this consciousness comes out of matter in this body and only exists locally here in this human self.


If I wish to be intellectually honest, I have to admit all of this. And it’s healthy, in several ways.

Being honest about this means that people with a materialistic view may feel more comfortable in exploring awakening. It doesn’t require any spirituality or religion.

Being honest about this helps me stay close to my own experience. It helps me see what I notice for myself and can say something about, and what’s outside of what I notice and can check for myself.

And it also helps me recognize projections and when I adopt what others say as a belief.

Yes, people say that all of existence is Spirit and consciousness, and it – obviously – appears to me that way since it has to appear to me that way. And yet, I cannot easily check it for myself. For me, it remains what others say. (And it may well be that they are not honest with themselves. Perhaps they assume that their own nature is the nature of all of existence, even if that seems an obvious fallacy.)

Yes, people say we live beyond this life, and to me, it also inevitably has to appear that way if I look at it superficially. To me, time and space happen within and as what I am. My nature is not touched by any of it. And again, that’s how it has to appear to me, and it doesn’t mean that’s how it is in reality. It doesn’t mean that this consciousness will continue after the death of this body.


I am sure many must talk about this and point out some of the obvious things here:

To ourselves, we are consciousness, and our nature is what mystics of all traditions and outside of traditions describe. We are capacity for our world, oneness, love, and so on.

To us, the world has to appear as we are. Since we experience existence through and as ourselves, it has to appear to be like ourselves. It has to appear to have the same nature as we do.

And we cannot really know if that’s how it actually is. We cannot know if our nature is the same as the nature of all of existence. To assume so is to make a big jump, a big leap of faith. It’s OK to do that, but we have to be honest and say that it is a leap of faith.

And if I am honest, I haven’t seen it spoken about very often. I seem to come across a lot of people – spiritual teachers and practitioners – who seem to assume that their nature is the same as the nature of all of existence.

The simple answer for why this is, is that these are spiritual people. They have adopted a spiritual worldview. These are the ones I have sought out and know.

It’s also possible that some haven’t made this differentiation for themselves.


It seems important to be able to talk about awakening, and help people find what they are to themselves, without referring to spirituality and religion.

It makes it available to more people.

It brings it down to its essence.

It highlights some of the common projections and assumptions often found in spirituality and religion.

And some do this, of course, including the Headless Way and the Big Mind process. Some would also say that Zen does this, at least in some variations of that tradition.


I like to think of this as the small or psychological interpretation of awakening. It’s where we strip down awakening to its essentials and don’t use or need any spiritual or religious language. It tends to be very honest and doesn’t require any leaps of faith.

There is also the big or spiritual interpretation of awakening, where we do assume that our nature is – more or less – the same as the nature of all of existence. We assume that existence is Spirit, the divine, God, and so on. This is, in a sense, a leap of faith. Although there are also many hints suggesting it’s accurate.


For me, the small interpretation of awakening is important for the reasons I mentioned. It seems more honest. It doesn’t rely on spirituality or religion. It makes it more accessible to more people. And it contrasts with my own projections and assumptions, and shows me when I go beyond what I can easily check for myself.

At the same time, I love the big or spiritual interpretation of awakening. It’s inspiring. It opens things up. It helps me find more trust. And so on.

And there are many hints, from what other report and from my own experience, that suggests it’s likely more accurate.

NOTE: To clarify, what I am referring to here is the general experience reported by most mystics of all as consciousness. All of existence, to us, appears as consciousness. All is Spirit, the divine, God, and so on. I am not talking about what other beings are to themselves. It’s very likely they are to themselves as I am to myself.

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Atheism & religions

I saw someone on social media say: “an atheist is someone who sees all religions as bullshit”. He then proceeded to go on a rant about religions.

That may be the case for some who call themselves atheist, but it’s not inherent in atheism at all.

We can have an atheist outlook and still find a great deal of value in religions. We can appreciate that they serve important functions at social and individual levels.

Also, we can turn the table and recognize that atheism itself can function as a kind of religion. If it’s based on the idea that “there is no God”, that’s a belief and something we have to take on faith. It cannot be proven. Some atheists also become zealots and proselytize on behalf of atheism.

Personally, I find value and validity in aspects of atheism, all the main religions, and many spiritual traditions as well.

Atheism tends to highlight the very real problems in religions and how they are sometimes used. Religions can help organize society, give comfort, and have valuable pointers and practices. And most spiritual traditions also have valuable pointers and practices. I have written about all of this in other articles, and most articles here show some of the practical value found in religions and spirituality.

To me, it seems that atheism often is a reaction to something more specific. Atheists often reject a particular image of God, and in particular the image of God as a being – or even more crudely a particular being like an old bearded man or young blue shepherd. They also often react to aspects to how religions tend to function, and how they are used to perpetuate power structures and social injustice. I wholeheartedly agree with both of those. A traditional theistic view of God easily seems a bit naive these days, and religions do have inherent problems.

Non-religious, or pan-religious?

It’s popular these days to say I am spiritual but not religious.

That partly fits me too. I don’t belong to any particular religion but I am interested in spirituality. (Of course, the word spirituality is something that means different things to different people.) 

Something else fits me as well, and that’s pan-religious. I am interested in insights, pointers, and practices of any religion. I have explored quite a few religions and their pointers and practices over time and found something beneficial in each one. 

Just to keep it fluid, I can keep going (!). 

I very much resonate with atheism. I was a self-professed atheist in elementary school since it seemed that the Christians I saw (a) believed something just because they wanted to or were told it was so, and often (b) did it for social reasons or for comfort. And although I understand the appeal, neither made much sense to me. 

I resonate with the recognition we can find in the more mature versions of any religion or spiritual tradition: Our images of God or the divine are our images. They are not what they (mean to) point to. 

And I see the value in staying within one religion or spiritual tradition over time and perhaps for life. There is a beauty in the deepening that can offer. It just happened to not be my path in this life. 

The gifts of atheism

Being from a country where most are atheists or agnostics, I am familiar with the gifts of those views.

The different main -isms reflect aspects of reality. There is some truth to each of them.

Here are some examples.

Atheism. Our images of God are not it. Reality is more than and different from our ideas, images, maps, and theories.

Agnosticism. We don’t know. We cannot know anything for certain.

Non-theism. Spirit is all there is. Everything happens within and as Spirit. The divine is not a separate being.

Panentheism. The universe is Spirit, and Spirit is more than that.

Of course, this is very simplistic. But it can be interesting – and fun – to explore the grain of truth in any views, as it appears to us.

What other gifts may there be in, for instance, atheism? This is what comes up for me. It reminds me to not automatically believe something just because someone told me it’s true. It reminds me to have a healthy skepticism towards religions. It reminds me of the downsides of religions. (Their main purpose is, almost inevitably, to maintain themselves. They can get mired in dogma. They are sometimes used for a few to gain and maintain power. And so on.) It reminds me, as mentioned above, that me images of something are images and not reality itself. And militant atheists remind me that any idea or ideology can be made into a religion, and that I don’t know anything for certain.

For me, these reminders are not so much about religions since I have never really been drawn to them, but other areas of life. Which areas of life do each of these reminders apply to for me? Where can they be a healthy reminder and correction? Where do I tend to believe something someone else said? Or make something, any idea at all, into a religion for myself? What are my own most cherished beliefs or ideas? Where do I get defensive? (As if I am trying to protect an idea or identity.)

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Atheists and images of God

A few things about atheism:

When atheists argue against religions and religious institutions, they often have some very good points. There are unhealthy aspects to many religious institutions, including different forms of power abuse. Many atrocities have been committed in the name of religion, often using religion as a cover for political or economic motivations. The three Abrahamic religions are based on bronze age/pre-modern mythology, and while the essence may be as valid today as back then, the packaging is often not.

On the other hand, when atheists argue against God, they are really arguing against their own images of God. At best, these images tend to be narrow, often limited to theistic religions. At worst, they are obvious caricatures and distortions of the images found in Christianity and other theistic religions.

Finally, to the extent they believe their own stories about reality, they make their own views into a religion. They mirror the religious people they argue against.

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Atheist mystics

I was a die-hard atheist before the initial awakening, and became one on my own in elementary school. God doesn’t care.

After – or within – an awakening, we tend to operate from the same general worldview as we had before the awakening, only modified some to fit our new reality. We used to be Christian, and still are afterwords. Or Muslim. Jew. Buddhist. Taoist. And so on.

And the same goes for atheism. The worldview I am most comfortable with is in many ways the worldview of an atheist, only modified to fit my new reality. I still have a more-than-average interest in science, and now also in stories about science that bridge science and spirituality such as integral views and the Universe Story. And it also means I am free to explore pointers and teachings from any tradition, and value and find appreciation for them.

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Going further

I am watching a documentary on the history of atheism.

Their aim is excellent: to question beliefs, and specifically religious beliefs.

And if it is taken further, it works even better.

The next step is to question atheism itself, and any beliefs about religions, God, nature and so on. What happens when I attach to these stories as true? Who would I be without the beliefs? What are the grain of truths in their reversals?

What happens when I attach to atheism – or current stories from science – as true? Do they become my new religion? Am I acting differently from believers of other religions?

And why stop there? Why not question any story I attach to as true, even – or maybe especially – those that seems most obviously true?

What happens when I take any story as true? Does it become my new religion?

I need beliefs to function in the world. Stories can be true. I know. Existence is something I can imagine. I am something I can imagine.

Is it true? Can I know it is true? What happens when I take those stories as true? Who would I be without it? What is the grain of truth in their turnarounds?

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