Phases in the awakening process, and maturing in spirituality

We can come up with any number of maps and models for the awakening process. Many of these fit much of the data we have, and they also tend to reflect our own biases, experiences, tradition, and culture.

I’ll outline a few general phases many seem to go through. And this fits, more or less, my own process as well. (I did skip the two first phases, see the last section.)

As with any phase model, any one individual process may look different. Some will skip some of these phases. Sometimes, a phase is baked into other phases. The path for some may look nothing like this. And many may not go further than the initial one or two phases.


Casual interest. Many have a casual interest in spirituality. Something in it is fascinating to us and we are drawn to it, and we may enjoy going to some events or reading some quotes or books. And that’s about it. This may progress to more serious interest, or stay like this, or fade.

Either one is perfectly fine.

Fascinated by what’s bright and shiny. Early on, we may be drawn to the bright and shiny. We may be attracted to teachers, teachings, and traditions that are charismatic, appear confident, and tell us what we want to hear. This can especially happen if we haven’t had a taste of what it’s about.

Engaging in more serious practice. At some point, which may be right away, we are called to engage in more serious practice. We devote time and energy to following pointers and practices from certain guides and traditions.

Here, we tend to focus more on the content than the packaging, and our discernment hopefully improves with experience and maturity.

A taste. We may have a taste of oneness, all as the divine, and so on. If the taste happened more spontaneously, it can function as a carrot, and, for a while, we may get caught up in chasing the experience.

If the taste comes from guided inquiry – like Headless experiments and the Big Mind process – several things may happen. We may find it interesting and not do anything more with it. We may feel it’s too simple and obvious, and it doesn’t fit our preconceived notion, so we dismiss it. Or we may engage in continued finding and exploration of what we are.

Learning to find and live from. When we more reliably can notice our nature, our invitation is to keep noticing in more situations in daily life and exploring how to live from it. Over time, this becomes a new habit.  

Inviting the human self to transform within it. Here, we may notice that many parts of our human self still operate from separation consciousness. These color our perception and life. And when they are triggered, we may get caught up in them for a while. We get caught up in the insanity of these scared parts of us instead of noticing and living from our nature.

An important part of this process is to notice these parts of us and invite them to join in with oneness and transform within oneness.

Dark nights. It’s common to experience different types of dark nights during an awakening process. We may have found the divine as all, and then it goes away and we respond with despair and loss. We may realize that none of what we believe is true the way we took it, including about spirituality, and have a kind of crisis. Our mind and heart open, and it also opens to anything unprocessed in us which then comes to the surface. (And this can feel disorienting, scary, and overwhelming.)

There are many other variations than the three I mentioned here. Common to them all may be that they help wear off some of our more cherished and essential assumptions about ourselves, life, and awakening. And although I inserted the dark night section here, it’s somewhat arbitrary. We can have dark night phases during any part of the awakening process.

Deepen into oneness and transformation. If we keep noticing, keep exploring living from it, and invite more of our human self to align within oneness, we may find that all of this gradually clarifies, deepens, and becomes more natural. We may also recognize that this is all ongoing and there is no endpoint.  


In addition to phases, there are also aspects or characteristics of the path.

Religion vs. spirituality. Some may go into or stay within a religion. They may do it for the community, comfort, and promise of some kind of salvation, or to engage in serious practice. Some may go into a more general spirituality that’s open for pointers and practices from many different traditions or that’s outside of any tradition.

Ideology vs pragmatics. We may engage in wishful or fearful thinking, believe whatever a teacher or tradition tells us, and go into ideologies. Or we may take a more pragmatic approach, hold whatever we are told lightly, engage in a serious practice, and see what works.

The world as a mirror. We may take the world as “out there” and more or less as it appears. Or we can use it as a mirror. We can use it by turning our stories about the world to ourselves and find specific examples of how it’s true. We may that, to us, it happens within and as our sense fields. We may find that our stories about the world, including the most basic assumptions and labels, come from an overlay of our own mental images and words. We may find that the world – any content of experience – happens within and as what we are.

Relationship with thoughts. We may take our thoughts as true and saying something real about the world. Or we may recognize thoughts as thoughts, as questions about the world, as serving a pragmatic function, as often only partially correct in a conventional sense, and as unable to hold any full, final, or complete truth.

This is an ongoing exploration since our system usually holds some thoughts and basic assumptions as true even if it doesn’t match our conscious view. These inevitably color our perception and life. And we may not be aware of these until one or more of them are triggered.

Finding effective tools. We may stay with the tools given to us by a guide or tradition. (Which may work fine or very well.) We take a more pragmatic approach, find what works for us, and learn which tools do what and apply them as needed. Or we do both, staying with the tools of a certain tradition and also exploring outside of this tradition.

Recognizing our own authority. Some may be tempted to give away their authority, especially early in the process. After a while, we may realize that we are always the final authority when it comes to our own choices and actions. Even when we pretend to give away our authority, we are our own final authority.

States vs our nature. For a while, we may experience unusual and amazing states, assume it’s about states, and chase states. At some point, we realize that this is about our nature, not states. And we can notice our nature here and now, independent of whatever states or experiences are here. (Unless they are very strong, our noticing is not so strong, and our attention gets distracted.)

Living for ourselves vs the larger whole. We can go overboard in either direction here, or life places us in a situation where we get to explore one more than the other. Over time, we may find more of a balance in a conventional sense, and look a little deeper and find where one is the other. (For a while, I tended to ignore my own needs and instead serve others, which doesn’t work especially in the long run and comes from some issues and hangups. Then, life placed me in a health and life situation where I had no choice but to focus on and take care of myself. The situation was too urgent and I didn’t have the energy or resources for anything else.)

Growing and waking up. As many talks about these days, both are important. We can work on healing and maturing as a human being. And also notice our nature and live from this noticing. They go hand-in-hand, and if there is an awakening, life tends to put us in situations where we need to grow up. (That happens no matter what, but it seems to get intensified in this process.)


When we are presented with a map of phases, it can be helpful or not depending on how we use it.

It can be of help when we personally are going through certain phases. When I was in the darkest dark night, I listened to Evelyn Underhill’s Mysticism, and especially the chapter on the dark night, over and over. Just about everything in it matched my experience, and it gave me some comfort knowing that others had gone through something similar. I felt a kinship to these people she wrote about, and I also went to some of the sources she used.

When we are in earlier phases, it can be moderately helpful to have a general map of the process. It gives us some idea of what to look out for, and it can help us avoid some of the pitfalls. (Although knowing about pitfalls is often not enough to avoid them, and we may need to gain our own experience.)

And as an awakening guide, it’s helpful to have a general map of the process. I assume just about anyone on this path eventually forms a map in their own mind of the process. And this map is often based on their personal experience, what they have seen from others, and maps created by others.

The idea of phases can also be less helpful.

It’s not so helpful if we use it to want to get to the next one. It’s better to just keep doing our practices and see what happens.

It’s not so helpful if we get caught up in placing ourselves and others in the different phases to see who is more “advanced” and so on. Life is more complex than that and there is a lot more going on than what’s described in any one model.

And it’s especially not helpful if we assume it has to be that way for everyone including ourselves. There are always cases that don’t fit a certain map or model. Life is always richer than any model. It’s always more than and different from any model.

As with so much, maps and models may be most helpful when we hold them lightly, use them for specific practical purposes, and know that reality is different.


It may be important to say a few words about my own process since it explains some of my biases. And it’s also an example of how life doesn’t always conform to the map. My own process doesn’t fit all of the phases I listed above.

In my case, the initial awakening shift happened spontaneously in my mid-teens. I didn’t go through an initial casual fascination phase. On the contrary, I was an atheist and saw religion and spirituality as impractical, something people seek for comfort, and something to avoid.

Since it happened outside of any tradition, I have felt free to explore any tradition. And I also tend to take a pragmatic approach and find and use what works for me whether it’s from a tradition or outside of traditions.

As mentioned earlier, I have gone through a relatively dense dark night. For me, it had to do with a lot of primal fear and trauma surfacing so it could join in with the awakening. It hasn’t been so strong recently, but it’s still very much a focus for me. It’s a process of allowing it to work on me. Healing my relationship with it and life. Inviting in healing for the trauma itself. And recognizing it all as flavors of the divine.

My main focus these days is to invite the different parts of me to join in with oneness.

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Any practice has elements of inquiry, devotion, integrity and service

Any practice has elements of inquiry, devotion, integrity and service.

It can be an expression of love for reality (God, Buddha Mind). It can be an expression of curiosity: what happens if…? It can be an expression of integrity, a sincere intention to live more aligned with reality. And it can be an expression of service, of realigning this human life so it better can be of service to the larger whole.

So there is fertile ground for exploration here. Any of those four is a practice in itself, and it includes elements of each of the other ones. What is the devotion component of inquiry? What is the integrity component of service? What is the service component of devotion? What do I find in my own experience?

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Truth or Buddhism

Awakening is an awakening out of stories, and that includes whatever guidelines (if any) used to invite in the awakening. As Gautama Buddha said, the teachings are a boat designed to get you over to the other side. No need to carry it with you after you land.

This is good advice at any phase of the process, whether it is before or within awakening.

And it is also good advice when the veils are thinning, since attachment to teachings as true may be among the last identifications. There may be an identification with the viewpoint of these teachings and all that comes with it, including dentification as content of experience, and as an I with an other.

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No closer to really understanding

During a recent Breema workshop, one of the students asked about the hara (belly). What is it? What happens with the hara during a session? Is it connected to the chakras? The meridians?

For me, it was one of those moments that shows very clearly that no matter how many models and theories we are familiar with, and no matter how well these seem to explain what is going on, we are no closer to really understanding it.

Of course, these theories and models and maps can be very useful. They have a practical value, and we can certainly understand something more or less well in this conventional and practical sense. In a conventional sense, a map is “true” or “valid” if it works well enough, and false if not.

But even if they work, we are no closer to really understanding.

In a conventional way, we know that a map is different from the terrain. Any map highlights some features, ignore other, and may be inaccurate in what it highlights and leave out something important. Chances are, it does leave something important out, we just don’t know it yet.

Also, a map is made of thought, while the terrain is something else. They are different in kind, often dramatically different.

Thoughts are always about the past. Even if they are about the present, they lag behind. And if they do say something about the future or present, it is always drawn from memories of the past.

Models always have a shadow, a reversal that is not included. They are inevitably partial. They leave out views and perspectives that also have validity. And life, as it goes about its business, has a tendency to bring up just those things that can only be understood through those reversals views.

So in all of these ways, we see that a map is not the terrain. It can be quite useful – and “true” – in a practical way. But that is how far they go in terms of their relationship to what they supposedly are about. They work (or not) in a practical sense, and that’s it.

There is also a more immediate way to see that the map and terrain are quite different, not only in degree but in kind. Where we see that the terrain is awareness itself, taking different appearances, and the map is just an overlay.

If we explore it through the sense fields, we see that thought is an overlay on each of the sense fields. It is an interpretation, a question, about what happens in the sense fields. It has immense practical value for our human self in the world, and no value – or truth – beyond that. It is just a thought. An activity of the mental field.

Any statement, theory, model, map, is a question only. Sometimes it helps our human self to function in the world. Sometimes it is less helpful. Sometimes it can even be a pointer for us to explore what we really are, and also here be more or less effective in a practical sense.

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Dangers of models

In writing the aqal review of local organizations, and also talking with a friend yesterday who’s very much into integral things, I am reminded of the dangers of Spiral Dynamics, and of any map, framework or model.

As with any map, or sets of ideas, it can be taken as a relative or an absolute truth, it can be used in service of shadow projections, and it can be used with more or less heart and empathy.

Relative and absolute truths

The clearest danger is in taking it as an absolute truth, to mistake the map for the terrain, to put more faith in and emphasis on what the model says rather than what the terrain is doing.

Seeing any map as a relative truth, it becomes a tool of temporary and practical value, an aid for navigating and functioning in the world. There is nothing absolute about it. Just a tool that works more or less well in any given situation. A tool with no inherent value, which can be modified and discarded as needed. It remains secondary to the terrain, to life itself.

Relative truth only: known or realized

One thing is to know this intellectually, that it is a map, a tool, a relative truth only, not absolute in any way. Another is to live from that realization.

Knowing intellectually that it is only a tool, I can still use it as a weapon. I can use it to cut others down, to affirm right and wrong views, to build up and preserve a particular identity, to see myself as right and others as wrong, to see myself as better and others as less good, to see myself as more evolved and others as less evolved, to divide the world into neat categories, to make the world into simple abstractions I can easily analyze and think I am right.

When it is realized more fully as a tool only, it becomes transparent. It becomes a thin, transparent veil of abstractions placed on top of the world. It can not so easily be used as a weapon because it is so clearly not substantial.

Shadow projections

Any map can also be used to affirm an identity. To split the world into I and Other, and us and them. To neatly divide the world into right and wrong. To build up, maintain and protect a particular identity.

Spiral Dynamics can be used to make me right and more evolved, and (some) others wrong and less evolved. It can be used to attack people who carry my shadow, such as the mean meme folks at any level.

To me, it seems that Ken Wilber does this, in particular towards the mean green meme and those he sees as living from this. He seems to have a personal hangup about them. A need to put them in place. To distance himself from them. To prove that he sees it more clearly than them. To thoroughly beat them up intellectually.

This is of course a projection from my side, because I certainly know this from myself. I did it when I wrote the aqal review of local organizations, and daily in many other ways. It is a partly blind and partly seen projection.

And my own projection is independent on whether it happens for KW as well. Acknowledging my own projection here does not say that it does or does not exist for him as well.

Still, other than seeing KWs attacks on the mean green meme as a partly blind shadow projection on his part, I cannot find any reasonable explanation for it (which does not mean that there isn’t one).

It seems that his strategy only serves to alienate folks at the green level, to push them away from any interest in an integral framework. I may be wrong here, but my limited understanding of the second tier is an ability to meet people where they are at, and using a language they understand.

Also, why focus the attack on the mean green meme, when that one is relatively harmless compared to the mean amber and blue? Again, if the purpose is to help people beyond green into second tier, then meeting them at where they are at seems far more effective. And enjoyable.

Not ready?

On a related topic:

My friend seems to think that only a handful of people locally, maybe 10 (of nearly 200,00 people!), would be interested in learning about a more integral approach, so why even bother doing any form of outreach? I guess this is based on the statistics of how many are at second tier levels.

To me, this again is an example of where attachment to a map can cloud clearer seeing. Everything becomes filtered through the model, in spite of what the world itself may tell us.

I personally find that lots of people are interested in hearing about it, because the aqal model is really just a practical tool.

And as long as there is just a little opening towards acknowledging the usefulness of the four quadrants and the levels and lines of development, then there is interest. To me, it seems that nearly everybody seem to have this opening, unless – in very rare cases, there is a strong attachment to an ideology which excludes either some of the quadrants or any idea of human development.

I know people that would be considered amber in SD, Christian fundamentalists, who would be open for it. And people at orange who are interested. And certainly lots of people at green. Anybody who wants to explore tools and maps that are practical and pragmatic would be interested, and most do.

So to me, it seems cynical to assume that the aqal model is only of interest to a very small segment of the population. It seems that as with SD itself, it can be – at least intellectually – understood and used by folks at almost any level. It can become a useful tool for just about anyone at any level.

Self/Other Grid II

The Self/Other practice or modality grid mentioned in an earlier post left out the body level.

With it, the rough outline could look like this:


Various forms of exercise, including aerobic and strength, and diet, sleep and self-massage.


Forms of bodywork, such as massage, other-assisted stretching, medicines, surgery.


Forms of yoga, including indian yoga, tai chi, chi gong, and related practices such as Breema.


Forms of healing and energy transmissions such as reiki and diksha.


Forms of inquiry and meditation, such as The Work, headlessness experiments and shikataza.


Changes in content or context of consciousness catalyzed by an apparent Other, by a teacher, Christ and God.


This grid overlays Ground and its many manifestations, so it is one fluid whole before and after we put on this grid. This also means that through the filter of this grid, we will see interactions between each of the areas.

When I or somebody else works on my body, it has effects on energy and consciousness levels. Energy may start flowing more freely, I may feel more relaxed and/or alert, and so on.

When I or somebody else works on my energy aspect, it has effects on my physical body, maybe healing of or relief from physical problems, and my consciousness aspect, maybe an experience of bliss or clarity, maybe even glimpses of Big Mind or selflessness.

When I or somebody else influences my consciousness, it also affects on the two other levels. My body may change, maybe it relaxes and tension melts away, and my energy system may change, maybe knots unravel and energy flows more freely again.

Integral Life Practice

The Other portion of this grid is often left out of integral practice discussions and frameworks, but it seems that for it to be more inclusive, and more aligned with the what is out there and available to us in terms of practices and tools for healing and awakening, both the Self and Other sections must be included.

Self/Other & Energy/Consciousness Grid

Here is a very simple grid that seems to cover many approaches to awakening…


This quadrant includes the various forms of yoga, such as indian yoga, tai chi, chi gong, and also related approaches such as Breema. I – whatever I refer to as I – am doing yoga. I am the doer.


This includes the many forms of meditation and self-inquiry, including shikantaza, The Work, headless experiments. I am doing meditation or inquiry. Again, I – typically placed on my human self – is the doer. I cause, invite or set the stage for change through choice and intention.


This quadrant includes any approach where a change in our energy aspect is caused by Other. It can be in the form of energy healing, reiki, sat nam rasayan, diksha and so on. I receive it from someone or something else.


This quadrant includes an apparent Other bringing about a change in consciousness, either in the content of consciousness or context, in awakening to selflessness.

Others appear to bring about a change in content all the time of course, just through every day interactions. And at times, Others may appear to bring about a change in content that can be seen as an altered state, or an awakening to nature or deity mysticism levels. This can happen in the presence (physical or otherwise) of a teacher.

Other can also appear to bring about a change in context of consciousness: an awakening from the appearance of I to a realization of selflessness, of content staying the same but clearly revealed as having no I anywhere. This can also happen in the presence of a teacher.


I personally find diksha to be among the most interesting of these approaches right now.

Diksha is a transfer of energy, and it comes from Other, so it belongs to the Other/Energy quadrant.

Yet, this change at the energy aspect influences the physical body, so it goes to another box in the grid that could be called Other/Body.

And from here, and probably also directly from the energy aspect, it influences consciousness, in the Other/Consciousness quadrant.

This influence of consciousness covers both content and context, eventually allowing for a clear awakening to selflessness.

See also an expanded grid.