The following is an outline of the principle stages people experience as they are awakening spiritually, especially in those who are moving in the direction of embodiment–the simultaneity of being both the free, unbound dimension of their nature and the very human emotional body/mind at the same time. The outcome of this awakening process is a profound, irrevocable shift into embodied awakening, a shift that appears to be more possible for more people at this moment in time than ever before.
Spiritual literature contains many references to “enlightenment,” but what I’ve been observing in my own experience and in the many students I’ve been blessed to work with has some differences from the traditional forms of awakening. It is as if this embodied awakening is spontaneously cropping up in unexpected ways (and in unlikely candidates), like a wild seed that has somehow taken root in humanity and is doing its best to find a way to survive and thrive. It doesn’t follow the rules—for instance, it doesn’t require long years of yogic discipline or purification first—and it doesn’t turn out like the traditional literature describes, yet there is a profound shift into a seamless unity of consciousness and matter, divine and human, that deeply satisfies that longing to know one’s true nature that lives at the core of every seeker.
Conditions now appear to be especially fertile for this type of transition to come to fruition. And while every person’s experience is unique, a number of us have shared our stories (many of which appear in The Second Birth book by Bob Valine) and we’ve followed enough people’s progress now to be able to identify the primary stages that appear in those who shift into embodied awakening. And we find that naming these stages, and being familiar with the map, can be a great comfort to those who are struggling amidst the often-intense forces that are at work in them, and even facilitate the most auspicious outcomes.
I have encountered and am indebted to many different spiritual teachers who each brought important discriminations about the process of awakening to my attention. I especially thank Aziz Kristof for his excellent discrimination of the three aspects of Consciousness (Awareness, Being, and Heart) and the subtle shifts that occur in the awakening process, and I credit A.H. Almaas with the de scription of “loss of being” in childhood that I have found so useful. And Saniel Bonder has been giving voice to the strange, paradoxical nature of embodied awakenings since his own awakening in 1992. His pioneering work of Waking Down in Mutuality is now the collective endeavor of a whole group of intrepid spiritual explorers whose shared experiences enabled this map outline to take shape. I have been a teacher of Waking Down since 2001.
Phases of Embodied Awakening
What follows is a broad, simplified overview of human spiritual development. Much like a fractal, were we to zoom in on any stage described below we would be able to distinguish many more subtleties and aspects than are here described. While there is a rough sort of linearity about the embodied awakening process, the various elements will show up in different ways and timing for each person—and some elements may not show up at all. Still, it is often useful to have a conceptual framework of what’s happening as a support for your own unique unfoldment into your divinely human potential. My intention here is to put forth a working model of embodied awakening that neither is so esoteric that it is impossible to grasp nor so generalized as to render discrimination pointless.
A useful analogy here is that we are focusing in on a developmental stage that could be compared to puberty in its effects. Puberty is a time of physical transformation that brings with it a new capacity (sexual maturity) that has to be integrated over some years before it levels out into functional adulthood. Similarly, embodied awakening is a spiritually transformative process that brings with it a new capacity (an ability to experience oneself as both impersonal Consciousness and personal human, simultaneously) which also takes some years of integration before it is fully functional. And the experience of embodied awakening is about as difficult to communicate to someone who hasn’t experienced it as orgasm is impossible to communicate to a child.
This is the stage of life that spans our development through infancy and childhood into adulthood. It includes the learning of many skills and also the progression through puberty into sexual maturity. It includes being “socialized” such that one learns patterns of adaptive behavior that further survival and success in the social world. And it may include the development of a spiritual awareness through participation in organized religion or through independent study, inquiry, and practice—possibly carried to high levels of refinement. However, this stage of unfoldment is characterized by ignorance of our full nature and by primary identification with the thinking mind and self-concept (sometimes called ego).
The reason for this ignorance of our true nature is partially a result of a natural and inevitable process that occurs early in childhood called “loss of Being.” It results when some intrinsic, essential, and divine aspect of the child is not seen or reflected back by the parents (often quite unintentionally and innocently, but also sometimes through a hostile rejection of a perceived quality that makes the parent uncomfortable). Because of that lack of positive mirroring, the quality never comes fully awake and available, and stays hidden in the background. The child subconsciously detects that “something’s missing, or something’s wrong about me” and begins to undertake strategies to try to get or earn what’s perceived to be missing. What drops out of awareness is one’s inherent, true, and perfect divine nature. What forms instead is a strategy of “trying” to be or get what appears to be lacking. This sense (which generally lies below the threshold of awareness) of “something’s wrong or inadequate about me and I need to do something about it” carries into our adult lives and fuels much of our human activities, including strategies to avoid feeling the discomfort or shame of it.
Typically, our response to the subtle feeling that we’re insufficient or unworthy and therefore cut off from Source is to try to compensate and prove that the opposite is true. We strive to achieve or to have that which will prove that we ARE enough, or good enough, or worthy, and we suffer from the constant subtle nagging thought that we aren’t. We are avid consumers of self-improvement technologies designed to counteract the core belief that we’re not sufficient, and it is all fueled by the thought that it’s up to ME to do something to make everything come right, both with myself and with the world around me.
While not a stage but more a preview or glimpse, these experiences of heightened perception, illuminating insight, visitations by divine entities or essences, or blazes of consciousness can occur at any time along the way—even after awakening. They may be the result of spiritual or mystical practices or the use of psychotropic substances, or may arise spontaneously without any prior effort, by grace or through the transmission of an awakened person. Illuminations give us the gift of a radical shift of perspective, or a direct experience of that which transcends our ordinary, familiar frameworks of understanding. A “glimpse” of the cosmic perspective will often seem so freeing and uplifting that, after it fades, the experiencer begins seeking ways to regain what was experienced and lost, and attempting to make that into a permanent condition.
Illuminations, however, are states of consciousness (like waking, sleeping, and dreaming) that are by nature transient and ever changing, as opposed to stages of development, which are permanent, irreversible transformations (like puberty). Much confusion exists over this distinction. While a variety of states from the mundane to the mystical are available to all people (at least in theory) at any stage of their evolution, stages unfold in a more-or-less linear fashion, always proceeding toward greater evolutionary complexity and coherence.
We do well to keep in mind that awakening typically comes in three steps: first is the shift into a new state, sometimes called a glimpse (Illumination)—an enhanced or exalted condition which reveals something previously unknown to the experiencer and then sooner or later fades. Next is the subsequent stabilization of a new quality of awareness and identity which might better be called a stage shift—this is when the condition is always effortlessly so (Realization). Finally, there is further development which follows upon stabilization as the whole being is reconfigured in light of the new condition (Integration). The first shift is a sudden occurrence and the others are almost always gradual. There is a common tendency to mistake initial sudden shifts for a stabilized condition. In the Waking Down practice of evaluating awakenings there is often the caveat “let’s see how it shows up over time”—which allows for the possibility that an awakening might not yet be stabilized fully and still needs some further cultivation.
This is a phase, called “the rot” in Waking Down terminology, wherein the strategies and systems of value that carried one through one’s early life to this point begin to prove somehow insufficient or inadequate to address the deeper issues of life that are now presenting themselves. It is as if the hidden, sleeping essence-nature or Being that had lain dormant since childhood begins to stir, causing ripples in one’s outer life. This may show up as an intuition that one is more than just one’s thoughts or personality, coupled with a longing to discover one’s true nature. And it may proceed into frustration or despair when one’s spiritual aspirations are not realized—perhaps after long years of dedicated practice. One begins to get a sense that the will-based techniques and strategies that worked in the past no longer work, or just don’t work for you in particular, or you begin to sense how powerless you are to control outcomes. Not just a time of life challenge, this is a profound spiritual passage or dark night where the patterned ways of thinking and acting formed in childhood and beyond are being loosened up by the evolutionary action of Being itself—creating the possibility of something new coming to life. Whereas most spiritual teachings recommend discipline and practice to free up energy and attention for deeper self-investigation, we have discovered that the natural and organic operation of this phase of deconstruction accomplishes a similar result with little overt effort.
What one falls into at this stage is the “core wound.” The core wound is a stress point generated when our uniquely human capacity to sense or intuit our divine spiritual nature and its potentials smacks up against our very human limits and patterns of behavior, creating a “rub” or existential tension right at the core of our sense of who we are. A sense of “not okayness” often accompanies this core wound, and there may be feelings of confusion, separateness, and insufficiency as well. The source of these feelings is a complete mystery to most people, and has led to concepts like “original sin.” However, there is nothing sinful about this condition, as it is a natural and inevitable consequence of a very special human attribute: the inherent ability to be, or become, fully conscious of our divine essence as it is expressed in and as our human forms.
Before that happens, there is only the subtle—or sometimes quite distinct—sense of distress at the core, and this feeling is instinctively resisted and avoided—that is until we drop out of that avoidance and into a dawning recognition that it cannot be avoided forever. Facing and falling into the core wound opens the door for the quantum shift of embodied awakening.
Realization Part 1: Consciousness Awakening
Leading up to the stage of Realization, in which the recognition of one’s Conscious nature as one’s Self becomes stable and permanent (i.e., real), aspirants often experience oscillations between what feels like an expanded or illumined state of awareness and their normal, mundane human perspective. While in the former, they may feel as if they have shifted into a more detached or aloof witnessing of their lives, in which there is some buffering from the normal vicissitudes of day-to-day life combined with a sense of the divine perfection of life as it is. Then they shift back into a more ordinary human framework, with all the inherent limits and problems coming back to the foreground of their awareness along with a sense of loss and longing for a return of the cosmic perspective. This is a transition phase which allows the recognition of Consciousness to become well-established while also permitting the neural pathways to gradually adapt to the changes that are occurring in the awakening process.
An important distinction to make here is that different people will experience their Conscious nature differently according to their inherent tendencies and natural resonance. The three primary aspects or qualities of Consciousness (or the Absolute, or I AM) that humans can distinguish and awaken to are Awareness, Being, and Heart. While all three aspects are equally valid and a recognition of any one of them can bring about a profound shift, the subjective experience of awakening via the different aspects will differ greatly. This can lead to some confusion or even a failure to recognize someone as truly realized if they have awakened through a different aspect of Consciousness.
The following are the three primary aspects of Consciousness as humanly experienced. Most people awaken using one of these aspects as their primary avenue, though it is quite possible, even desirable, to eventually awaken to all three:
Awareness or Presence: Awareness is where Consciousness touches the personal through the avenue of the personal mind (small “c” consciousness) and its thoughts. Awareness, which is most easily noticed in the center of the head, makes the activity of the mind possible. Sometimes called the Witness, Awareness is without boundary, form, or content, and is continually registering everything which is arising as thoughts, feelings, and sensations in the field of perception, memory, and fantasy. Attention is one of its attributes, as is intelligence, and its primary quality is light—the light of clarity that permits anything to be experienced or known. Normally our attention is completely focused on objects, ideas, and things, so that is all we notice; however, it is possible for our attention to soften or relax, thus allowing Awareness to become self-evident and the sense of Presence to come awake. Awareness is accessed through meditation, active noticing, or self-inquiry, and is generally the easiest aspect to awaken to.
Being: Being is where Consciousness touches the personal through the avenue of the body and its felt sense of aliveness or existence. Being, which is most easily noticed in the belly, is naturally more impersonal in nature—as the life-current it is the same for all beings, and is also without boundary, form, or content. It provides our sense of existence in space-time, and its attributes include instinctual knowing, the sense of “now,” stillness and peace, and the recognition of being non-separate from all of life and form which leads to deep trust in Being. Its primary quality is the feeling of life itself as an endless field or ground that supports or gives rise to an infinite array of forms. Being is accessed passively, through resting, surrendering, or abiding in the deep Ground of Being. At its deepest, through the mechanism of surrender and grace, the experience of Being gives way to dissolving into Source itself (sometimes called the Absolute): our original home of bottomless peace.
Heart: Heart-essence is where Consciousness, as the Divine, the Mother, the Goddess, or the Beloved, touches the personal through the avenue of emotions and subtle feelings. Heart-essence, which is most easily noticed in the area of the physical heart, is multi-dimensional and its awakening may involve many steps to help it heal from the wounds it has sustained as a highly sensitive center of feeling. Its attributes include intuition, radiance, warmth, tenderness, gratitude, and compassion, and its primary qualities are unconditional love and grace. Heart can be accessed energetically through giving it attention, and through prayer and invocations that express the feeling of deep longing for greater connection with one’s Divine source.
Realization Part 2: Embodied Awakening
In the fullness of a timing we can neither predict nor control, and sometimes after a prolonged phase of transcendent witnessing, those who are destined for an embodied awakening sooner or later experience a remarkable shift. Instead of being able to experience only one perspective at a time, the awakening person discovers something they could never have understood until they experienced it directly: the paradox of simultaneity. As if there were a split screen, the perspective of Infinite Consciousness exists at the same time as the finite human one complete with all its feelings, sensations, thoughts, and emotions. Rather than stabilize in a transcendent sort of awakening, they begin to experience the merger of Infinite and finite, Consciousness and matter, Divine and human. They are becoming divinely human.
Regardless of which aspect of Consciousness is awakened first, embodied awakening is said to have occurred when the paradoxical experience of being both impersonal Consciousness and personal human being fuses into a seamless unity, or sense of Onlyness, that includes all of life and creation. While your self-sense or identity as you continues to function, it is simultaneously transcended by a recognition that you are made of the same essence as everything else and are an integral part of something far greater than your limited human perspective. This is realized both experientially through various possible types of revelatory experience, and also tacitly, as a continual background knowing that effortlessly co-exists with whatever else is in the foreground of one’s attention, and inaugurates a new stage (not a state) of evolution. Although this shift is permanent and irreversible, it is also just a birth—in Waking Down circles called “the second birth”—and requires integration for its full potential to be realized.
Another way to describe this shift is that unbound impersonal Consciousness has landed or taken birth in and as your human body-mind and is beginning to function in a new way. Inexplicably, the subjective experience is not one of being taken over by something foreign, but of your true Self finally becoming fully awake and free to be who you most truly are.
It is only after awakening to our divinely human nature that we have our whole Self –an established center of feeling-awareness that can now more directly participate in the co-creation of our evolution and our experience in the manifest world of things and relationships. Before that, we are rather unconsciously identified in the more automatic functioning of our thinking and reacting mind, and we’re living more or less exclusively out of acquired, conditioned patterns rather than from our essential nature.
For most people, Realization does not provide instant transformation such that one’s life becomes a perfect expression of what was recognized in the embodied awakening experience itself. The conditioned patterns of behavior are too subconscious and deeply rooted for that to be the case for any but an extremely rare few. Instead, Realization is just the beginning of another, even more intensified period—colorfully labeled by Saniel Bonder as the “wakedown shakedown”—of re-configuring the body-mind to allow greater freedom and range of expression. This Integration phase continues for years after Realization. The initial years of repeatedly encountering (and being humbled by) the most limited, deeply shadowed areas of the body-mind give way gradually to a natural rhythm of investigating patterns as they surface, knowing that the goal isn’t to be completely rid of them but to live with increasing freedom and possibility in the face of them. Over time, the “human” self becomes more tenderized and permeable to the light or radiance of Consciousness—and more able to express the qualities of freedom, truth, self-expression, compassion, beauty, aliveness, creativity, etc., according to each individual’s inherent nature.
In addition to gaining an increased freedom in the midst of our basic human tendencies, this period of Integration is a time when the experience of Consciousness becomes more evident in our day-to-day lives as well. A useful analogy is that of a lamp with a dimmer switch: at the time of the second birth it is as if the lamp of Consciousness is switched on, but set on the low setting. While it never goes out, it can and will at times be overshadowed by strong thoughts or emotions. With further cultivation and as more energy is freed up through the action of the wakedown shakedown, the light gets turned up ever brighter until it shines through all of our experiences and is no longer able to be significantly overshadowed by the ups and downs of our changing moods, thoughts, and emotions.
Worth specific mention here are three avenues of further development in the second birth that provide opportunities for a more complete awakened experience. Development in any of these areas may be—and ideally is—undertaken prior to the second birth as well as following it, but development in these areas cannot and will not reach full potential until there is awakened Presence with which to engage these elements fully.
1. Awakened Heart
Although there may be an initial “fall” into the Heart as a part of the awakening process, the full awakening of radiant, compassionate Heart-essence is a complex process that must evolve over time. Awakening cannot be complete without awakening the Heart, because the Heart is the seat of the Soul and also our connection to the Divine and to unconditional love. Some people awaken to the other aspects of Consciousness without awakening Heart-essence, but there is an aloofness or austerity with regard to the personal dimension of life if the Heart is not also included. Heart-awakening requires healing work that includes re-parenting by one’s self and also by others to help sooth and heal the wounds we acquired throughout life, especially in childhood. Only by facing and addressing the places where we closed off our tender hearts (and developed reactive patterns for self-protection) can we allow Heart to reopen to the receiving and giving of love, caring, and deep compassion for ourselves and for one another.
As we evolve and move through different layers and dimensions of our totality, we may find our center of identity shifting through ego, Presence, Ground of Being, or even the Absolute. We are all these. And within all that we are, we find the center of our unique personal identity dwelling in the Heart. It is our Soul, which can only fully recognize itself after the Realization of Presence and Being, and after the Heart center is opened along with its profound sensitivity. The Soul, as the meeting point between infinite Consciousness and finite matter, partakes of both—experiencing the Onlyness and the separation simultaneously in an endless Mystery of dynamic creation.
2. Awakened Mutuality
Once we have learned to bring compassionate Presence to our personal feelings, thoughts, emotions, impulses, and reactions, the next major phase of our evolution is to bring this self-awareness and compassionate Presence into all our relationships. We are motivated to do this not just to be nice to one another, but because other people are also intrinsic parts of Onlyness and are not essentially separate from us. Therefore their pain is our pain, so to speak—and this becomes ever more evident as our hearts open in their capacity to sense and feel others. Mutuality is more than patience and understanding; it is a vivid encounter between Self and Other in which there is a commitment to expressing one’s own truth as genuinely as one can, while also making room for the other to do the same. Mutuality is a practice where more and more aspects of ourselves—including our divinity—come alive through our interactions with one another. It involves risk and daring, and it requires courageous willingness to act from integrity and stay present even in the face of discomfort, without any assurance of outcome. It is not some utopian ideal. It is very challenging, and also very enlivening, and it does create the possibility of a powerful sort of deep intimacy that is still rare on planet earth.
3. Awakened Purpose
After the shift of embodied awakening, our most tender, innocent, genuine self is available to a greater degree than ever before. We may find that we are rather clueless about “who we are” at that point, and discover many new things about what works for us as we take risks and try out new ways of being and communicating that are more authentic. During the Integration passage, we will inevitably find ourselves alternating between times of authentic self-expression and times of automatic response based upon prior conditioning. We do well to notice and honor what is most nourishing to us—that which we naturally turn toward as a flower turns toward the sun—for therein lies the key to our greatest fulfillment.
Sooner or later, the impulse of Being itself will move us to step up more fully to our Life, and to encounter our destiny—which may well land upon us with finality that is inescapable. Our attempts to live small and avoid this encounter ultimately prove futile. And whether the outer appearance of our lives is grand or simple, what’s important at this stage is the fundamental encounter with issues of choice, meaning, and personal power.
There are many degrees and subtleties of the Mystery that can be discovered by one who seeks to take their awakening as far as humanly possible. This map is not intended to be comprehensive so much as practical. The further we go in our collective love, investigation, and expression of awakened Being, the more we realize that idealized de scriptions of “enlightenment” as some sort of a static, utopian state are more fantasy than reality. They represent the ever-receding ideal, and we’ve come to realize that as we are evolving collectively, our de scriptions of enlightenment need to evolve with us and reflect what is real, tangible, and possible now without reducing the concept to something meaningless or hollow.
What we’ve been discovering through our collective practice of Waking Down in Mutuality are greater degrees of wholeness, trust, autonomy, and freedom of expression, profound compassion for the difficulties of being here as conscious beings, and relationships that are richer, more authentic, and more fulfilling than anything we had dreamed of. Embodied awakening is the beginning step of a realization that has far-reaching potentials we are just beginning to tap in our mutual explorations. It’s not an easy path to tread, but it’s real, it’s compelling, and no one who really engages it seems to be willing to give it up (as if they could).
This map has focused on the “what” of embodied awakening without really addressing the “how” which will have to be the topic of another essay. Let it suffice for now to say that there is a growing international community of teachers, mentors, and practitioners of Waking Down in Mutuality whose purpose is to further their own evolution while also giving a supportive hand to others who find themselves caught up in a similar process of embodied awakening. We are continually discovering ways to help people navigate this passage most auspiciously by engaging these three gateways: awakening Consciousness (waking), dropping down into embodiment, and sharing deeply with others in mutuality. You can learn more by visiting www.wakingdown.org.