There are certain defining moments throughout spiritual development. When you first recognize that you are not your thoughts. When you experience physical or emotional pain break up into flowing sensations that are no longer “bad,” therefore revolutionizing your relationship with pain. When you fully grasp the truth that suffering is optional. When you come to know oneness—not in the wow-woo, new age way, but in the fully realized way. And when you fall in love with everything, including the emptiness, knowing only love. All of these and more are awakening. These fundamental discoveries rearrange you at the deepest level, creating paradigm shifts and psychological evolution. Once you’ve woken up, you can’t really go back to sleep. But you can hit the snooze button and hang out in a kind of groggy half asleep limbo. This is not a very cool place to reside. But it’s a spot where a lot of folks get stuck for years and years.
The thing is waking up is scary. It means losing everything, and that doesn’t sit so well with the small, self-centered, pleasure seeking self that we are tethered to before waking up. In fact waking up is the last thing that that part of us wants to do. It wants to get off, feel good, and get its numerous daily fixes. We want the booze to make us happy, the pills to make us sleep, the Netflix to keep us entertained, the sex to keep us satisfied, and our loved ones to make us feel like we are enough. Waking up means seeing through all of that, and then watching it all slip away.
It doesn’t generally happen all at once with a flash of lightning and a dramatic sound cue. It’s usually more of a process, which is a good thing because otherwise waking up would cause a lot more psychotic breaks (it does happen…). Gradually we peel back the layers of identity and attachment, which slowly over the years deepens awakening. But with each of these layers comes another death, another instance of letting go—whether you like it or not. This kind of “letting go” is not really an active thing that you do. It’s rather a thing that happens to you, you let go. When you fight this natural effect of your spiritual work, life gets painfully challenging. You are trying to hold on to something that is no longer even in your fingertips, let alone under your control. Everything starts to feel hard. You don’t want to meditate, you don’t want to interact with anyone, you don’t want to feel or think anymore. A spiritual malaise sets in.
It can feel like you are stuck in a kind of hell. Unable to go back to the old ways of excess, avoidance, and unconscious suffering, but also unable to open fully to a new way of life. You have one foot in and one foot out. The resistance to embracing the next iteration of your awakening can be strong as all get out. It can come in the form of falling back into old self-destructive patterns (which, sorry to say, won’t give you the fix they used to), becoming “depressed” and attaching to that identity, and the good ol’ trick of spiritual bypassing.
Spiritual bypassing is when you use your past insights to avoid your present feelings. I’ve seen that there is no self, so I don’t need to do any personal work. Everything is love so I can just ignore how much I hate myself right now. I know suffering is optional, I’m not suffering, I’m past that point. Really. And so on. I myself have been an expert spiritual bypasser over the years. Luckily I have friends, teachers, and a partner who don’t let me get away with it for very long. I’ve also come to see the urge to bypass something as a form of resistance. Whenever there is resistance it’s sure that a new insight and a deeper awakening is close by. In this way resistance has become one my my best friends. When I become aware of it I get all happy, giggly, and throw my arms around it, just like a good buddy. Resistance, if treated gently and with love, peels back to reveal the brightest of jewels. What you really are.
Yes, seeing what you really are, in all the endless ways, can be scary. You do have to wade through loneliness, grief, confusion, and immense loss. You have to see and love the parts of yourself that frighten and disgust you the most. You have to be willing to die into the fires of awakening, with no hope of recovery. You have to let go of getting a fix from that guy, or that show, or that cookie, or that meditation technique. The part of you that can get a fix will be no more, and when you try to get off on whatever it is, it won’t work. It’s scary and you lose a lot, but once you stop hitting snooze and wake up to the next transformation, none of that will matter. You will be operating from a whole new perspective. Born again, so to speak. Until you reach the next plateau and do it all again. The good news is, your relationship with this process will change as you do. It won’t always be such a big drama to awaken. You won’t hit snooze so many times, and eventually not at all.
I am a big believer in having a huge toolkit full of mindfulness practices. While yes, you do eventually “lose” them too, having useful options on the spiritual path makes for a smoother ride. If you know how to deconstruct thought and emotions, you know how to deconstruct whatever self is arising. That includes the acting out self, the shut-down and avoiding self, and the spiritually bypassing self. If you have some lovingkindness and relaxation techniques available you can soften around your resistance, while also sending it unconditional love. If you can focus on your breath, you have the concentration and equanimity to go about your life even when you are trudging through the Dark Night. So, no matter how awake you are it’s helpful to keep your mindfulness tools clean and sharp. You never know when they might come in handy.
I also believe that community, or sangha, is a required support when traversing the ever shifting landscape of awakening. While sometimes we need to climb the mountain alone and sit under the stars without company, we also must be willing to climb back down and join humanity once again. A community of peers, teachers, and students is what deepens and sustains my insights and awakenings. I need to be seen, and to see others, to truly transform. I also need oversight, and opportunities to be of service. Plus the loneliness of the spiritual path is eased by having friends you can talk to who know what the heck you are talking about! Perhaps even more than all that, I think the reason we are here at all is to have relationships with others. Through these relationships we heal, grow, and wake up. It is our birthright to connect with everyone and awaken to each glorious moment. And the cost is just everything.
So give up. Give in. Swim out until you can’t see land, and then drop down deep to where there is nothing you’ve ever known. Then pop back up and go to a silly movie with your sweetheart, or eat some peanut butter chocolate chip cookies and binge watch The Walking Dead, or go have a super hot one night stand with a stranger at the bar. You’ll find that it really isn’t either-or. You get to be an enlightened, spiritual being and a beautiful, imperfect human being. You may not relate to the fixes of life the same way as you used to, but the joy and pure pleasure of just being will deepen and flourish in ways you could never imagine.
You won’t want back what you lost, though you may grieve it and have moments of melancholy and heart-aching nostalgia. Remember you are human—it’s hard to let go of the things we hold dear and attach ourselves to with the glue of thought and emotion. But you are also much more than just a human with a mind and body. You are all of it, and all of it is you. You don’t need to earn your awakening, you just need to put both feet in and remember to wake up. Now. And now. And now.
This article previously appeared on Deconstructing Yourself