Themes of awakening in my own process

I wrote an article about themes in the awakening process and how this can be useful in itself, and as a complement to a more traditional stage view on awakening. (Stage models can be interesting and useful to a certain extent, and also come with drawbacks.)

I thought I would give an example of how a theme orientation can be used in a specific case. And since the case I happen to be most familiar with is my own, I’ll use that.

Each theme could be its own book, so this is obviously a very simplified overview.


My interest in this came after the oneness I am shifted into noticing itself as all there is. It took the form of trying to find books written by others who had found the same, and then reading a lot of books and engaging in a variety of practices from different traditions.

In my late twenties and early thirties, my active exploration and interest dipped a bit since I was very engaged in sustainability and community organizing. I probably needed a little breather after a quite strong exploration in my teens and early- and mid-twenties. And then it returned in my mid-thirties and hasn’t waned much since.


My conceptual exploration started after the initial shift. At first, I had little idea about what to look for, apart from Christian mystics. And I did find people who seemed to have found the same, including Meister Eckart.

After a couple of years, I started finding more people and devoured a lot of books. Especially from Jes Bertelsen, CG Jung, Taoism, Ken Wilber, Fritjof Carpa, and Tibetan Buddhism in my teens and twenties. Zen in my twenties and thirties. Adyashanti, Byron Katie, and Douglas Harding in my thirties, and I also dipped my toes into Advaita/Neo-Advaita. I have also read a lot from other traditions and by other authors, often two or three books a week. (I used to have a library of a few thousand books on these topics.) In addition, I have listened to talks, talked with a few spiritual coaches, lived at a Zen center, and so on.

And I explore how to express and map out certain things here in these articles.


In my case, the direct exploration started the moment my system shifted into oneness recognizing itself.

In my teens, oneness recognized itself as all there is and explored itself. There was an enormous amounts of insights coming just about all the time, which sometimes felt a bit overwhelming. Most of it is, in its essence, the same as I what write about here now. (I often feel there hasn’t been all that much development, more a getting used to it.)

In my late teens, I also did tai chi and chigong daily. I did Christ meditation and Jesus/Heart prayer daily for one to three hours, and the heart prayer became ongoing even as I slept, and this was profoundly transformative for me. I did several Taoist “inner yoga” practices as described by Mantak Chia and Jes Bertelsen, and found these very powerful. And I loved doing tonglen. I continued all this into my twenties, and in my early twenties, I also started the Ngöndro practice from Tibetan Buddhism.

After moving to Salt Lake City for psychology studies, I found Kanzeon Zen Center, became a resident, and followed their daily program and the sesshins/retreats. I was also there when Genpo Roshi developed the Big Mind process, which I am very grateful for. The practices I did here were training a more stable attention, basic meditation, and koan practice.

I continued most of these practices, and in my thirties, I also got into ho’oponopono, Breema bodywork (instructor), The Work of Byron Katie (did daily for many years), the Headless experiments (love them), Living/Kiloby inquiries (facilitator), and more.

And a few years ago, I got into Vortex Healing and have continued to take these classes since they seem to do something interesting and possibly useful with my energy system, and I find the tools powerful and helpful.


I did have glimpses of oneness before the major and lasting shift that happened when I was sixteen.

During early childhood and maybe up until about school age, I experienced several flashbacks to what seems the time between lives. It seems to mostly happen when I was outside in the garden and the sunlight filtered through the leaves. It was an experience of all as consciousness, golden light, and one, and I found myself as consciousness without a physical body. It seemed timeless, with only a hint of change and of time happening mostly in a place far away. There was occasional communication with other consciousnesses, and they seemed infinitely wise and loving and were there to guide me. I felt profoundly at home. (It was all one and consciousness and golden light, and a sense of entities within this oneness.)

At the time, I didn’t consciously consider it very much. It just happened. And I made no connection between this and the word “God” or Christianity which seemed much more distant and abstract. When I later learned about near-death experiences, I realized that this seemed very similar although it was more of a memory from before this life. And when the oneness shift happened, I realized that the deep longing I experienced as a child was for what I had experienced between lives, and really for oneness – for the oneness I am recognizing itself as all there is.

After being profoundly influenced by Cosmos by Carl Sagan when I was ten, I also had several moments when I looked into the deep starry sky and experienced all as one. As Carl Sagan said, I am the local eyes, ears, thoughts, and feelings of the universe. I am the universe bringing itself into consciousness. I deeply and viscerally experienced that.

And since then, I have experienced glimpses and shifts that point to more lasting noticing and shifts coming up. For instance, in my mid-thirties, there were a few months when the essence of my nature came to the foreground very clearly and strongly and was unmissable. This was a temporary state, but it has helped my noticing focus on the essence of my nature since then. Thes essence stands out much more clearly and is less easily confused with states and other changing content of experience.

And there was also a shift that happened when I was fifteen which seems to have led to the oneness shift one year later. This was a shift where the world – including this human self and anything connected with this human self – seemed infinitely far removed and I found myself as what was observing it all. In hindsight, it seems that my mind created the experience of a clean observer-observed duality, and this – one year later – led to a shift into oneness recognizing itself as all there is.


The first stable shift that happened was also the first shift I am consciously aware of. It’s what happened when I was sixteen, walking down a gravel road to the house, with a big wind going through the landscape and the infinity of space filled with innumerable stars above me. For whatever reason, and perhaps as a safety valve for stronger-than-average teenage angst, oneness shifted into recognizing itself.

From one millisecond to the next, all without exception was recognized as God, as the divine and consciousness. This human self was the divine exploring itself as and through this form, and the divine takes and explores itself through all forms and everything that is. Even temporarily and locally taking itself as most fundamentally a separate being is the divine exploring itself through and as that.

Many years later, the shift mentioned above happened – where the essence of my nature came to the foreground in a clear and unmistakable way. This led to a more immediate and clear noticing of the essence of my nature through daily life situations. The noticing became a little more precise, at least that’s how it seems.


I have gone through a few different dark nights, and it obviously depends on what definition we use.

In my teens, I went through a kind of conventional dark night filled with teenage angst, social anxiety, and a self-esteem that was very low in some areas and OK in other. I assume the oneness shift may have happened as a kind of safety valve for this pressure that was building up. 

Later, I experiences another kind of dark night when I went against clear and unmistakable inner guidance on a major life issue. I geographically moved away from what I deeply loved and what felt deeply right for me  – graduate studies, Zen center, a community, and nature I deeply loved in Utah. I did on the surface to support my then-wife in her studies and career – by sacrificing my own – and deeper down I was caught up in fears. And it felt deeply wrong and I felt deeply off track. One consequence of this was that I was abruptly unable to continue drawing, painting, and meditating, which I had deeply loved and did daily for 10-15 years before this. 

Some years after this, I went into an even deeper dark night. It started with strong pneumonia which led to severe CFS and being confined to a dark room for months. Then, there were several months with huge amounts of archetypal images going through my system, including the dark ones. Then, divorce (which was good) and loss of my house, belongings, friends, community, and just about all of my money in the divorce process. A part of this process was also asking the divine to “show me what’s left”. This was followed, a few days later, with an enormous amount of primal survival fears and trauma surfacing. It was overwhelming, felt unbearable, and led to nine months of immense pain where I was lucky if I could sleep one hour in the morning, and walked for hours every day in the forest listening to Adyashanti and the dark night chapter in “Mysticism” by Evelyn Underhill. This gradually eased over the next several years. Along with this, I have felt that my brain doesn’t work very well, it’s been difficult to make good decisions, and my system has felt disorganized. This dark night is still here, several years later, although it seems to gradually ease up.


How do we live from what we notice? How do we live from the shifts that come about through heart-centered approaches and other practices?

For me, it makes the most sense to allow this to unfold naturally.

I notice and am curious about what happens.

If I notice I act from reactivity in some situations or areas of life, I make a note of it, identify some issues behind it and perhaps some stressful thoughts and identities, and typically explore it using one or more approaches.

Sometimes, I’ll take a turnaround from The Work and make it a living turnaround” and explore how it is to live from it in daily life.

Sometimes, I’ll intentionally go against an old habitual pattern that is not so helpful for me (or others) anymore.

And that’s about it. As with anything else here, this is an ongoing process. And there is certainly a lot of room for improvement for me and probably all of us.


I have been passionate about psychology and healing since my teens. Initially, I devoured a large number of books (talks made into books) by Jung and humanistic psychology and explored it in my own life. I have gone to therapy at different times in my life. I trained in Process Work for several years and did a number of workshops and classes with Arnie Mindell and others. I have done Breema bodywork since the mid-2000s and am an instructor. I trained in the Big Mind Process with Genpo Roshi since I was at the center when he initially developed it. I have done heart-centered practices since my teens. I have explored a good number of issues using different forms of inquiry.

And that doesn’t mean I am anywhere near “healed”. There is always further to go. Some central issues – formed through my mind’s response to ongoing childhood experiences – take time to explore and unravel. And often, it’s as much or more about healing my relationship with certain hangups in me and their triggers than finding healing for the issues themselves. (The two are obviously connected, and healing my relationship with what’s triggered and the trigger does invite healing for the issues.)

These days, I mostly enjoy using the befriend & awaken (wake up) process which I have written about in other articles. In short, I notice a contraction, which is reflected in the body (tension) and mind (reactivity). Notice the physical sensations connected with it, that they are physical sensations, and rest in noticing that it’s already allowed and noticed. Thank the contraction for protecting me, and for its love for me. Explore what it deeply wants and needs, and rest in giving it to it. Notice some of the painful beliefs behind it and inquire into these. Notice that its nature is the same as my nature, and rest in that noticing. Invite the contraction to notice its own nature. And so on.


I haven’t shared much about this. I tried in my teens, in very small portions with friends, but none seemed to have any interest in it. I also tried with one or two Buddhist teachers in Oslo, but I got the sense that they were more familiar with – or interested in? – the teachings than the actual terrain.

I did meet two people in my late teens where there was an immediate mutual recognition, and this was very important to me. One was my friend BH whom I met at tai chi, and the other was the then-wife of Jes Bertelsen whom I took some workshops with. Later, I experienced the same with Bonnie Greenwell and Adyashanti when I got to spend some time with him one-on-one.

I imagine most people who know me don’t even know I am interested in these things. And my sharing these days is mostly here, in these articles.

At a human level, I notice some loneliness in me around this. Parts of me wish for more of a sense of shared exploration and a community of people exploring this. What I have found is that people who follow a traditional path often seem to be as or more interested in the tradition than the actual terrain. And for me, the terrain has always been primary and the traditions more of a support.


I thought I would add a few words about stages and themes.


Any map and any concepts about reality are superimposed by the creativity of our mind. They are essential and useful in helping us navigate and function in the world. And they also come with limitations. They are not reality itself. They are different in kind to what they are about. They are simplifications and leave a lot out. And they are inherently inaccurate.

They are questions about the world. They are provisional.


And so also with stage models about awakening.

They can give us a generalized map of a typical awakening process, and that can be useful. It can give us some markers. It can help us feel we understand a bit more about the overall process. It can be intellectually fascinating. And so on.

At the same time, they come with inherent limitations and possible drawbacks.

I mentioned some above. Stage models, by necessity, simplify and generalize. And when we develop them or use them, we tend to emphasize data that fits and set aside, ignore, leave out, or interpret away data that doesn’t fit.

Life is always more than and different from any map, and it’s also in its essence simpler.

We can superimpose universal themes and phases on an awakening process. And it’s also inherently individual. The way oneness ties itself into separation consciousness is somewhat individual, and the way it unties itself is also somewhat individual.

In many cases, the process may not fit a particular stage model. The stages may be jumbled. We may apparently skip one or more. The characteristics of several stages may happen at once. There may be something else happening in our process that seems important and is not covered by the stages in the model. And so on.

If we hold stage models lightly and are aware of their limitations, then they can be useful.

And if we hold them more tightly and ignore their limitations, it’s often stressful.

For instance, if we are in an awakening process, and the form it takes doesn’t fit the models we are familiar with, we may think something is wrong and this may create unnecessary confusion and doubt. (Although, if it happens, then it’s part of our process and we are invited to learn from it.)

Similarly, if a spiritual coach is caught up in certain stage models and encounters a student whose process doesn’t follow these models, the coach may not be able to adapt so easily, they may get a wrong impression of the situation, and they may even try to fit the student into the model even if that’s not what they need. (I have experienced this several times.)


That’s why I like the theme orientation.

Many themes are found through the awakening process, and it’s interesting to see how each theme changes over the course of the process.

A theme orientation is more adaptable to the individual quirks and flavors of the awakening process.

We can always add or subtract themes depending on what we wish to focus on or find useful. (For instance, additional themes may be relationships, our life in the world, and special states, abilities, or experiences.)

And we can weave in a (lightly held) stage understanding into a theme orientation if or when that seems useful.


In my case, a stage view does work to some extent, although some stages will be in a different sequence than in most models. (For instance, interest and exploration came after the initial shift.) Also, several aspects of the process have been present throughout the process and not just in one or a few stages. (Interest, glimpses, shifts, dark nights, etc.) And several important aspects of the process may not fit neatly into any particular stage. (E.g. early glimpses.)

For these and other reasons, it seems a bit forced to try to fit my process into the stage models I am familiar with and even the ones I have come up with in articles here. It’s like trying to fit my foot into a shoe that’s too small or has a different shape than my foot.

A theme orientation feels far easier and more logical to work with, and it’s more fun for me to explore the themes and how they have changed through the process.

And in exploring that change, it’s possible to test out or include the idea of stages if we want to.

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Themes in an awakening process

I have been interested in the phases and stages of the awakening process for a while, and although these stage maps have value, I am also very aware of their shortcomings.

So I thought I would explore a different approach here that may complement stage models, and also loosen them up a bit, and shed a slightly different light on the process.

What are some of the themes in an awakening process? And how do they look in different phases of the process, and perhaps in some of the individual processes I know about?


Here are some of the themes that stand out to me.


If we are in an awakening process, we typically have some interest, fascination, and draw to it. We may feel called. We may respond to inner guidance or intuition. We may tell ourselves any number of reasons why we are interested in it.

This interest tends to stay with us through the process, perhaps with some periods where it goes more into the background.

An interest or fascination may be how it (apparently) starts for us. And other times, our fascination and interest come from an initial glimpse or shift. (For me, the shift came first.)


Just about all of us have at last some intellectual curiosity about the process, we wish to make some sense of our own process and experiences, and we read or listen to what others have to share about it.

This intellectual exploration typically follows us through the process. It doesn’t belong to any particular phase.

It can be very helpful in that it provides us with a map and a way to orient.

And the pitfall is that we can have our noses so deeply in the maps that we forget about the terrain. We may distract ourselves. We may get overly attached to certain maps, even when they don’t fit the terrain so well. We may temporarily forget that this is about the terrain, not the maps.


We also have the more direct and visceral exploration.

This may be a direct noticing of our nature, often guided by certain structured forms of inquiry and someone familiar with the terrain.

We may explore basic meditation and notice and allow what’s here, and then notice that what’s here is already noticed and allowed and align more consciously with that. We may find that any and all content of experience, including anything associated with this human self, comes and goes. And that what we are is what all this comes and goes within and as.

We may train a more stable attention. We may engage in heart-centered practices. We may use body-centered practices or do energetic work. We may follow ethical guidelines mimicking how people tend to live when oneness notices itself.

We may explore how it is to live from all of this.

Not everyone starts with direct exploration, but it is an essential part of the process. And if we are on a sincere exploration, it tends to be with us for the whole process. There is always more to discover, clarify, deepen, and get familiar with.


At some point, we may have glimpses of our nature. We may intuit or feel some kind of oneness of existence. We may even recognize our nature as capacity for the word as it appears to us, and find ourselves as the oneness the world to us happens within and as.

We may experience different kinds of states highlighting and showing us aspects of our nature.

And these glimpes may show us something just a bit beyond what we already are familiar with.

This can happen at any phase of the process. Even after we notice our nature, there is always further to go, and we often get glimpses of what’s ahead. (At least, that’s how it’s been for me.)


We then have the more stable shifts.

Oneness may shift into more stably noticing itself, through the different states, experiences, and situations of daily life.

Oneness may shift from noticing itself to more viscerally experiencing itself as oneness, again through the different situations in daily life.

And so on. There are many of these.


We may go through several kinds of dark nights in an awakening process.

These are temporary states where we may feel lost or that we have lost something, we may have deep wounds and traumas surfacing, we may experience deep agony, and so on.

These are times when our old orientation and way of being may not work anymore. Old patterns wear off. And we get ready, whether we know it or not, for something else.

The more we struggle, the less pleasant this experience tends to be. And if we struggle, then that struggle is an integral part of the process for us and something we can learn from.

There are certain things we can do to make it a little easier for ourselves. For me, it helped to know that others have gone through something very similar. It helped to have the guidance and support of someone who had gone through it himself. Being in nature was a blessing and helped calm down my very frayed nervous system. Energetic work – Five Element acupuncture and Vortex Healing – has also helped. And heart-centered practices and inquiry has been a good support as well.

In my experience, this is something that lives its own life and has its own schedule. In many ways, “I” am just along for the ride.


Through the process, we may also explore living from what we discover and the shifts that happen.

We may explore living according to ethical guidelines, and notice what in us wishes to deviate from these. (Typically, wounded parts of us that need some befriending, understanding, love, and clarity through inquiry.)

We may do heart-centered or body-centered practices, and explore how to live from the shifts these bring about.

We may notice our nature, and explore how to live from that in different situations in daily life.

And we may notice what in us is still not yet on board with this, and gently explore and get to know those parts of us.


A part of this process is the reorganization and realignment of our human self and the many psychological parts of our human self.

This happens throughout the process. It happens at a conceptual level through our conceptual curiosity. It happens at a heart level through heart-centered and other practices. It happens as shifts in how we relate to ourselves, others, situations, life, and our experiences. It happens in terms of our identity and what we take ourselves to be. And so on.

Mainly, it happens in the form of a healing of how we relate to anything. And as healing of the different wounded parts of ourselves.

These days, I am mostly using the befriend & awaken process to explore this.


Some don’t feel moved to share much about this or their own process, and that’s perfectly fine.

And others are drawn to sharing, in some form or another. Even if it’s just occasional conversations with others on the path.

The sharing can be between colleagues exploring a similar terrain. It can be between a student and coach. It can be between someone familiar with this terrain and someone curious about it. And so on.

For me, the sharing mostly happens here.


Stage models obviously have their place and usefulness.

And I still love this focus on themes – or woven threads – in an awakening process.

It shows how themes may be present throughout the process. It shows how they may change in their expression through the process.

It complements the stage models, helps loosen them up a bit, and fills them in. And it’s fully possible to include a discussion of phases when outlining themes, or the other way around.

Note: I wrote an article using a theme orientation to outline my own process.

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Stage models, reality, and when the sequences are jumbled

For me, it was more about finding cosmologies that fit my experience. Specifically, that in my experience I am consciousness and the world to me appears as consciousness. (Whether that’s how reality actually is, is an open question but possible.) I had to go to Buddhism, Taoism, mystics from different traditions, etc. to find cosmologies that reflected this. (When the shift happened for me, I was an atheist living in a Christian culture so I wasn’t familiar with any of the cosmologies that eventually felt more like home.)

This was my reply when someone in an online “spiritual emergency” group asked about shifts and cosmologies.

In many cases, people will initially be interested in spirituality, read and hear about it, explore some practices, and so on. And if there is a real shift in perception and identity, it often comes some years into the exploration.

Most maps and models of the awakening process reflect this. First, there is an interest or draw to it. Then an exploration of maps and practices. And then a shift.

And, as we all know, maps are maps. They are mental representations of a part of life and life’s processes. They are more or less accurate in a conventional sense. They are always refined as we get more information and experience. They are simplifications. They leave a lot out. They are different in kind from what they refer to. And life is more than and different from any map.

Life operates independently of human maps. And if we have our noses too deeply into our maps, life will inevitably throw up surprises and remind us that it’s different from our ideas about it.

In my case, life didn’t follow the standard maps. This human self was an atheist, mostly interested in science, and saw spirituality and religion as a crutch of little or no interest. One night – while this human self was walking down a dark gravel road under a sky filled with stars and a big wind, out of the blue, and for whatever reason – oneness shifted into noticing itself, and the “center of gravity” shifted into oneness. And then this human self spent a long time playing catch-up and exploring the sharing from others who had recognized the same or similar, cosmologies, and different types of spiritual practices.

It took at least a couple of years before I found anyone who seemed to describe what seemed so obvious to me. I still remember it. I was still a teenager, standing in the man library in Oslo, in the religion and spirituality section, reading in an old book of Meister Eckhart’s sermons. And there, behind some layers of cultural differences and Christian language, I saw someone who had at least glimpsed the same.

Later, I found reflections in some Taoist writings, and also Buddhism and especially Zen, but all of it seemed hidden behind layers of tradition, cultural differences, and sometimes intellectualizing that deviated from actual immediate noticing. I found Jes Bertelsen, a fellow Scandinavian, who clearly knew what this was about. Some years later, I found Adyashanti who most clearly of anyone reflected what seemed so obvious to me but few talked about in a direct and simple way. After that, I also found the more modern Advaita and neo-Advaita folks who talked about the same, often in a clear and direct way, and also sometimes seemed a bit caught up in ideology.

If I am honest, I still feel I am playing catch-up to what was revealed back when I was sixteen and what is still shows itself to itself here. I still feel a bit like I was hit by a truck. I still work on helping my human self reorient and reorganize within it.

And when it comes to stages and models of the awakening process, I hold it all lightly. Yes, there are some common phases and elements of the process. And no, it’s not always sequential and especially not in a particular one-size-fits-all way. The phases may happen in different sequences. Sometimes, several phases – or elements of several phases –– happen at once. Sometimes, phases return in a different way.

To me, it all looks more like themes woven into each other and expressed in our life in different ways. The themes are recognizable. And they are always woven in an individual way.

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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The problem with stages

Although I love Ken Wilber‘s integral model in general, there are several sides of him and the integral community I find a bit troublesome. This includes green-bashing (vilifying the ones they see at the green level of development), Wilber’s tendency to misrepresent the views of others (straw man arguments), and the tendency of the integral community to adopt both the good and bad sides of Ken Wilber’s personal approach.

I would also include an over-emphasis on stages, and especially the stages described in Spiral Dynamics. Of course, these models can be useful in some contexts and to some extent, if they are held lightly.


Why is there such an emphasis on stages in the integral world? One reason is obviously that they see the difference between first- and second-tier orientation as important and fascinating. (Very roughly, this is the difference between seeing your own view as right and other views as wrong versus appreciating the validity in each one and being curious about how they fit together in describing the world in a more rich and nuanced way.)

I can’t help wonder if there isn’t more going on.

Stage models offer neat ways of dividing up the world and understanding people. They are generally easy to understand. We can put them on top of just about anything and tell ourselves we understand what’s going on. They give us a jumping-off point for easy analysis.

They can be attractive because they give us a sense of understanding and that we grasp something important about the world, and many want to feel they understand.

Also, they can be used to boost our self-esteem. If we understand and like a model, it’s often because we imagine we are pretty high up on the hierarchy.


At the same time, it’s important to keep in mind some things about stage models of human development.

Stages are not inherent in reality. They are imagined and put on top of something we observe. These imaginations can fit the data well, and help us orient in the world, and they are still imaginations.

If we have a set of observed data, we can find innumerable imagined overlays that fit this data – more or less well. In the future, we’ll likely come up with models that seem to fit the data, and new data, better, and models we may see as more useful in helping us orient.

What we observe largely depends on what we look for and expect to find. We already operate from assumptions and use those to determine the setting for gathering data, the data we gather, and how we interpret those data. To some extent, we see what we expect to see. It’s easy to imagine alien anthropologists or psychologists coming here, studying us, and highlighting and understanding what they see in a very different way from us, and it may be equally valid and useful as what we are familiar with.

We all operate from different parts of us in different situations and settings. What comes out in one situation may be different from what comes out in another. There is a richness, complexity, and fluidity here that may not be well captured by models.

We are rich and complex, and stages will by necessity only look at one or a few of the aspects of who and what we are. As Ken Wilber says, there are several lines of development. (In reality, there are innumerable since we can divide this up in as many or as few as we want.) Stage models tend to (over?)simplify and overlook the complex ecology of interactions within this organic richness.

We tend to develop stage models of what we value and where we, as culture and individuals, are high up or on top. In another culture, they may see something else as valuable and would develop stage models of that. In these models, they are likely to be closer to the top since they live in a culture where that particular development is valued, encouraged, and supported, and we may be further down. (These could be stage models of being in tune with the natural environment, hunting skills, shamanic development, valuing the interests of the group over self, living from a sense of deep time, and so on.)

In general, stage models can be over-emphasized and held too tightly.

Life is far more complex and rich than any model. Models and thoughts are different in type from what they refer to. Life is always more than and different from our thoughts about it. And our models tend to reflect – and reinforce – our own culture, orientation, and values.

Stage models can still serve as valuable guides for certain things and in certain situations. It’s just helpful to see the bigger picture, be aware of their limitations, and hold them lightly.

Note: I wrote this from what came to me, I am sure others have done a far more thorough and insightful analysis of the limitations of stage theories.