Forty years ago many people thought of yoga as a fringe activity for hippies. Today there is a yoga studio on nearly every corner, and millions of people are practicing and enjoying the benefits of yoga in many forms. Twenty years ago, many people considered meditation to be a way of escaping the world, even weirder than yoga. Today it is one of the most scientifically studied and beneficial practices that we can do for ourselves. In this blog, I propose that the next beneficial development to become the “new normal” is actually the goal of both yoga and meditation: awakening.
I will define what I mean by awakening and give examples in upcoming posts in this blog series, A Glimpse of Awakening. Awakening often begins with a “glimpse.” A glimpse is not a meditation state, a positive thought, an altered state, or a belief. A glimpse is a shift of center, from an ego-identified location of perception into a new way of seeing from Being. It’s not about improving our current sense of self, but accessing a hidden dimension of consciousness – that I call awake awareness – which is equally available to each of us. As we discover a new way of knowing, the reduction of suffering can be felt and the positive changes in our brain can be measured. In awakening, you do not lose your personality, sense of history, or sense of humor. Instead, waking up is more like a form of growing up. Though you are much the same now as you were when you were two years old, you can feel the profound difference from growing up. Awakening is a similar change of identity, and can become the next natural stage of adult human development.
Though it has been one of the most highly valued capacities in most cultures and religions, awakening does not require religious belief. There are many definitions of awakening but there are also unifying principles that can help us enter the process of awakening regardless of our background. Perhaps the most significant universal principle of awakening is the relief of a kind of suffering that most other healing approaches cannot provide. I stumbled into a direct experience of this early in my life. Here is an account that I share in the beginning of my book, Shift Into Freedom: The Science and Practice of Open-Hearted Awareness.
I remember it was one of those cold, clear winter nights. As my college library closed its doors, I began to trudge up the steep hill to my dorm. My body was exhausted; my heart was heavy with grief as my mind pored over the events of the past year. I’d lost my father, who’d been battling brain cancer for two years. My grandmother, who had been living with our family for twelve years, had recently passed on. And then a month later, one of my best friends died in a tragic car accident. I’d been plunged deep into the river of old age, sickness, and death—and I was trying to swim or at least stay afloat.
Halfway up the hill, I heard a loud thought in my mind: I don’t know if you can take this much pain. I stopped and stood still. Who was talking and who couldn’t take the pain? I turned within and looked for who was talking, but to my surprise found open space. My thoughts quieted and my heart broke wide open. The weight of my despair lifted, and I felt not only relief but also pervasive joy, well-being, and love streaming through my being. Tears ran down my cheeks, and I laughed and cried at the same time. I looked up at the stars sparkling in the boundless night sky, feeling connected and supported.
As I stood there, breathing deeply, I noticed that my usual sense of self was gone, yet I felt fully embodied and alive. From that night onward I could feel the grief, but there was more space and compassion to help me feel my emotions without being overwhelmed. I even remember thinking that I, too, would die one day—but even that seemed okay. Something had changed and a new process had begun. I realized that I had the freedom to choose to do anything with my life.
My direct glimpse revealed to me that an undefined yet important dimension of reality was available. I was so taken by the experience that I made it my personal and professional labor of love. I did two related graduated degrees in psychology and comparative spirituality. I also traveled to Asia, studied with teachers from many traditions, meditated, inquired, collaborated with neuroscientists and tested out practices with students, clients, and myself. And through all this, I followed the thread of freedom from suffering through the paradoxical maze with a contemporary scientific approach and curious open heart. A Glimpse of Awakening is a way of sharing some of these insights and pointers, and creating a dialogue for our common development of consciousness and for the purpose of making awakening “the new normal,” which is so crucial at this crucial time in our history.