A pragmatic approach to awakening

I typically take a pragmatic approach to awakening.

If we have a serious interest in anything, pragmatism tends to make more sense. It’s more grounded than the alternatives, and it’s more likely to give results.


What does a pragmatic understanding of awakening look like?

For me, it means to point to the essence of what awakening is about, in an as simple, direct, and universal way as possible. 

And that means to use a language that is as simple, direct, and universal as possible, and as little dependent on any particular jargon or tradition as possible.

I don’t even like to use the word awakening, but do it here as a shorthand so people will have a rough idea of what the topic is about, and so it more easily can be found in search engines.

When I write, I often have a few questions in the back of my mind: Can I simplify further? Can I get more to the essence? Is this something that would make sense to people from a variety of different traditions? And across times and cultures? 


What may a pragmatic approach to exploring awakening for ourselves look like? 

It means to use the approach that has the best chance of working, no matter what we wish to explore or learn. 

For instance… 

Use the tools and approaches that work the best, based on reports from others and our own best judgment. This may and often will change over time, and a combination of approaches can often be effective. (For instance, basic meditation, inquiry, heart-centered approaches, body-centered approaches, and guidelines for living.)

Find and follow the guidance of a good coach. Someone who is familiar with the terrain from their own experience has the skills and personality to guide others, and whom we trust and resonate with. 

If something doesn’t work, let it go and find another approach that works better. Awakening is not about something that may happen in the far future. It’s something we can find and live from here and now, and if an approach doesn’t do that for us, we can find another. (Sometimes, what doesn’t work is our approach and we can refine it with some guidance. Other times, we may need to change the tool.) 

Engage in practices that support the different facets of awakening: Notice what we are. Continue to notice what we are. Live from it. And invite in healing for our human self so it’s easier to live from that noticing in more situations and areas of life. 

Recognize that all of this is an ongoing process without any finishing line or arrival point. 

And perhaps most importantly, approach it with sincerity, honesty, and diligence. Find the sincerity and honesty that’s already here. Clarify your motivations for engaging in this exploration and find the most essential one(s). 


Even with a pragmatic intention, and the (limited) simplification and universality that can be expressed through this system, my approach and words will inevitably reflect my own culture, time, and personal experiences.

There is nothing wrong with that. It’s inevitable. And there is a beauty in it. 

We all filter this and anything else through our culture, time, and personality. We all give it our own flavor. We all know the terrain in a slightly different way.

And all of it adds to the collective richness in how we experience, live, and understand it. 

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Are we in a simulation?

Some ask this question. As so often, the answer for me is yes, no, and don’t know.

In a conventional sense, the answer is: I don’t know. And that’s fine, I don’t really need to know.

When I look more closely, I also find that I can know something about it, and the answer is yes and no.

The world as it appears to me, happens within and as what I am. I am capacity for it. It happens within and as what a thought may label consciousness. And I perceive it through an overlay of thoughts that labels, interprets, and creates stories and generally makes sense of it. In that sense, it’s a kind of simulation. It’s like a dream to me since it happens within and as consciousness, and it’s filtered and interpreted by my mental images and stories.

At the same time, there is consensus reality. It seems that I perceive the world more or less as others, at least in a basic and everyday sense. I see a blue sky, walk on the ground, open doors, eat, talk, and so on. In the consensus reality and pragmatic sense, I live and function as if it’s not a simulation. For all practical purposes, it’s not a simulation.

So I cannot know if we are in a simulation, in the way most people talk about it. It’s a kind of simulation since my world happens within and as what I am and is interpreted and made sense of by a mental field overlay. And for all practical purposes, in consensus reality, it’s not a simulation.

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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Tim Minchin’s Storm

A story of post-modernism gone awry, misapplied skepticism, and wishful thinking. And no, I don’t agree with everything Minchin says here, but he has a good point.

This can be very simple. Some stories are very helpful in a practical and pragmatic sense, and one important set of these stories comes from science.

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How we label what we don’t quite understand

What do we do with the things we don’t understand?

If it seems mysterious and important enough, we have traditionally explained it through God and religion. There is lightning and thunder, so perhaps a thunder god is behind it. We die and don’t know what is after death, so create mythologies to fill in the gap.  We live a life, but don’t quite know what it is for or how we fit into the larger whole, so we create religions to give us a sense of meaning.

And I see that every time I create a belief for myself, I do the same. I don’t know, am uncomfortable with that not-knowing for whatever reason, so create a belief to explain the mysterious and give me a sense of somewhere to stand, a viewpoint I can identify with.

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Evolution and a more pragmatic relationship to stories

Slightly revised, and from a previous post I just finished:

It is easy for us to recognize physical tools as tools only, and to use these with a measure of pragmatic wisdom.

And yet, it is so difficult for us to do the same with stories. At least for many of us.

Why is it so?

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Stories as tools


Staying with the simple and obvious, here is a reminder about stories as tools:

First, let’s look at what we know about tools such as a hammer or a shovel.

We know that each useful in some circumstances and for some tasks. If we use the wrong tool for a task, it usually doesn’t work so well.

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