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What Does It Mean to Awaken?

The impact of awakening on personal growth.

In addition to being a psychologist and psychotherapist, I have decades of practice as a Zen Buddhist who has also formally studied traditional Buddhist texts, Buddhist psychology, and its theory of consciousness. I am a mindfulness teacher, too, and have developed "real dialogue" as a skill for bringing mindfulness to difficult conversations.

Source: Polly Young-Eisendrath
Source: Polly Young-Eisendrath

Within this complex array of experience and practice is a central theme that is often called “awakening” or “waking up.” You might be confused about what this term means because it is used politically (being “woke”) and socially (“wake up, you idiot!”) and in lots of other ways. There is a specific meaning—a kind of definition—of this term in the emerging field of “consciousness studies” or “new science of consciousness.”

A while ago, I got very interested in near-death experiences (NDEs) and read the highly informative After: A Doctor Explores What Near-Death Experiences Reveal About Life and Beyond by Bruce Greyson M.D. Greyson is Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry and Neurobiological Sciences at the University of Virginia and one of the world’s leading experts on NDEs. I noticed immediately that some of the characteristics of NDEs—the deconstruction of feeling embodied (being “out of the body”), the vast sense of love and interconnection, bright colors and beautiful surroundings, the presence of deities or divine forces—were very much like aspects of awakening that are reported in Zen, some of which I have myself experienced.

From this observation, I scrambled to get more information about the “landscape of awakening” and eventually interviewed the prominent researcher of psychedelics, Roland Griffiths, Ph.D., who talked with me about his ongoing work at the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelics and Consciousness Research. The main take-away from that interview is that there is a kind of “template” for the phenomenology of awakening across the following domains: studies of psychedelic experiences (in a controlled setting), spiritual/meditative awakening, NDEs, and being "born again" (Evangelical Christian experience). Not only was I fascinated to discover that Johns Hopkins University was investigating the phenomenology of awakening, but I was also weirdly struck by the fact that all of the effort and grit involved in Zen is not necessary for awakening. Awakening is its own thing and it can happen to you (as in an NDE), you can take something to “try to make it happen” (psychedelics), or you can work hard to cultivate your own awareness so that it’s more likely to happen (Zen).

The Nature of Awakening

“Awakening” (as I am using the term here) is not confined to any specific spiritual tradition or practice; it is a universal phenomenon that transcends cultural boundaries. It involves a heightened state of consciousness where the individual experiences a profound shift in perception, often accompanied by a sense of interconnectedness, unity, love, and expanded awareness. If this awakening involves what Griffiths calls an “ontological shock” it often leads to a reevaluation of one's beliefs, values, and priorities. Consequently, at Johns Hopkins, clinicians are evaluating the benefits of the controlled use of psychedelics to help people with depression, anxiety, substance abuse, fear of death, eating disorders and many other problems. But a single experience is not a quick fix. Without extensive psychotherapy and integration, awakening may lead to (1) nothing but a memory or narrative about your “experience,” (2) negative outcomes like a feeling of alienation from others or even increased anxiety, or (3) confusion about your identity and purpose in life.

The Impact of Awakening on Personal Growth

Awakening experiences have the potential to shake the very foundations of our understanding of reality. They challenge our limited identities and the defenses we use to say “this is who I am” because we see/hear/feel that we are part of a larger network of being or awareness that is unified in ways we cannot grasp through ordinary concepts. This shift in perspective can initiate a transformative process, prompting individuals to question their deeply ingrained patterns and seek a more authentic and engaged way of living. As a result, awakening experiences then lead to increased self-awareness, emotional healing, and a sense of purpose. Many clinicians at Hopkins and elsewhere are hoping that the controlled use of psychedelics can bring individuals a positive shock that wakes them out of their habitual “default mode network” or ego consciousness and out of their depression or anxiety.

The Role of Dialogue in Integration

Awakening experiences can also be frightening and overwhelming, leaving individuals with a thirst for deeper understanding and/or with a lot of fear about losing control. In fact, as I learned from Greyson’s work, about 65 percent of people who have NDEs from clinical death experiences eventually get divorced because they do not feel seen/heard/felt accurately by the spouse or partner. They feel alienated.

Awakening experiences often reveal the multidimensional nature of our being and it may be hard to convey that to a partner. But many experiences are hard to convey to a partner! What’s different about awakening? Two things: (1) the deep desire to share a profound and beautiful insight or meaning so that a loved one can also benefit from it, and (2) the potential to feel special or set apart from “those people” who haven’t had this kind of awakening. These two possibilities can be in conflict and also create conflict between the “awake” and those who have not had such an experience.

Overcoming Challenges Through Real Dialogue

While awakening experiences can be awe-inspiring, they also present challenges as individuals grapple with new perspectives and uncertainties. In my own work in Dialogue Therapy for Couples and Real Dialogue for Opposing Sides (Jean Pieniadz & Polly Young-Eisendrath), we have developed a mindfulness-based skill (three components) that allows individuals to "speak for yourself," "listen mindfully," and "remain curious" even when the other person is not using such an open and encouraging approach. We also teach a formal and structured facilitation method that couple therapists and leaders, educators, and others can learn to help people use these skills while talking about complex and challenging differences. The key is to humanize the differences and to recognize that our first-person subjective experiences do not line up, ever, really. It’s only words that cause us to believe we are seeing even the same “tree.” When it comes to an experience like awakening, we have to be careful and slow in unfolding our humanized ways of seeing/hearing/feeling what one person has experienced.

Awakening experiences can be catalysts for personal growth, resilience, developing compassion, and more because they offer a glimpse into the limitless potential of human consciousness. Through open and honest conversations, individuals can navigate the intricacies of their awakening and make them transformative experiences in their ongoing lives. Without some skills and guidance, however, integrating a personal awakening experience can be difficult, alienating or even anxiety-provoking and isolating. This is why dialogue about awakening is so important.

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