In this short paper I want to describe spiritual awakening as a life-long process[i].
Sometimes we describe spiritual awakening as an experience. These are spiritual experiences that most people have in various ways and forms that often include a sense of awe and wonder, connection, oneness, profound love, joy and an awareness that there is a loving compassionate creative Presence that fills the universe.
We may wake up to the truth that there is purpose to our lives: that we are born to live as unique expressions of that love-intelligence of the universe that we call God. These experiences can be like a lifting of the veil and a realisation that all is not as it seems at a superficial level. The realisation that there is an energy, a Presence, that is giving rise to this reality and that this Presence of God is at the core of our being and our identity, waiting to be known and to be expressed. The founders of the spiritual traditions, Abraham, Moses, the Buddha, Jesus – they share this unveiling with us all, and open up the way for us. The problem is these experiences are usually temporary. They may last for a few minutes, hours, days or weeks; the experiences are usually transitory. Even so, they are capable of changing our perspective on life for ever. But perhaps what is more important is the journey that they initiate; the lifelong process of waking up to our true nature and our true purpose.
On a personal level waking up can lead to greater healing, wholeness and peace within our lives and the ability to express our gifts more fully. Even more importantly, waking up together is what is needed if we are to overcome the social chaos, inequality and violence in our world. Spiritual awakening is changing the world from the inside. We can work so hard to bring about the change we want to see in the world. But it is unstable unless this inner spiritual awakening occurs in us and in people widely.
The question today is: How can we open up to this process of awakening? How do we wake up?
There is a sense in which spiritual awakening is a natural process that will occur if we are reflective in relation to our life experience. There is a wisdom that comes as we go through life and many people do wake up gradually by this means. There are also spiritual practices that can help us wake up; practices like study, inquiry, contemplation, meditation, movement practices.
This process of awakening has sometimes been called the gentle effort. Not something that necessarily takes a lot of work or striving but something that can be embraced and allowed to take place. It is the gentle effort of opening our lives to God, or to the life energy of the universe so that attitudes or capacities form in us progressively over time. If these attitudes that I am going to talk about are welcomed into our lives then we are likely to continue to wake up and realise our true purpose. I these these attitudes are closely related to the beatitudes of Jesus, able to bring the blessing of waking up and all that flows from it. I am grateful for the teaching of Miranda McPherson, spiritual teacher, for drawing attention to these attitudes.
So we are going to look at attitudes which enable the waking up process in our lives:
In order to wake up we are invited to surrender to the creative impulse of the universe which we call God. This surrender is not a fearful thing. It is not cowering before an enemy. Awakening experiences reveal to us that at the core of the universe is a loving and compassionate presence. Surrender is the gentle effort of surrendering to that presence: one who loves us and wants the best for us, and the earth. Jesus said “take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls”. The word “yoke” is equivalent to the Sanskrit word “yoga” which means a training in higher consciousness for the purposes of rest, or peace, in the soul and peace on earth.
Spiritual awakening does not require a forceful effort to change. It is more like a letting go – a letting go of acquired and now unhelpful ego or persona characteristics in order that our true essence can sine through. The surrender involved in this does not diminish us but enhances us as we remember, or discover, our deepest essence or Self and learn how to live out of that awareness.
Every spiritual tradition calls for human beings to develop trust. The call of Jesus to his disciples “follow me” was a call to deep trust.
What is it that we trust? Three things at least:
The first is trust that the universe itself is benevolent, is good. Trusting that in our lives we participate in something which has Goodness and Love as its foundation. To trust that God, the creative impulse, is good and that Love wins.
The second is that, despite everything, life evolves in the direction of goodness, beauty and truth. Life is not easy and there may be many things that we struggle with but overall through history we can trust that the trajectory is good.
The third is trust in the goodness of our own nature, our essence, the image of God in us. To trust that however much it is buried or distorted there is a divine goodness in every person that can be awakened.
I love the story of Jairus’s daughter as a story of awakening. Jesus says “she is not dead but sleeps”. This is the diagnosis for ourselves and our world – we are not dead but asleep. We wait to be awakened and lifted to our true nature just as she woke up and was able to be her true living self.
3. Curiosity and love of the truth:
Deep within all of us is a flame, a passion to be curious and to know more. More about the reality that we are part of, more about how we can lead meaningful lives that fulfil the person that we truly are. We see this in children, the huge curiosity about everything, the desire to know – “what’s that?”
As we grow older and our ego identification strengthens there is a risk that we lose our curiosity and become fixed, rigid. The ego likes the safety of what it already believes to be true even when those apparent truths are actually defence mechanisms or tribal values that we inherit about race, religion or politics. I like to think that the flame of the Holy Spirit of Pentecost is a flame that re-awakens this passion to know. It fans the flame of curiosity about the deepest truths of ourselves and the world. It is this passion to know that causes us to change, to wake up. Jesus said: “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come.” (John 16) To wake up is to become open-minded, willing to learn and to change throughout our lives.
4. Relaxing judgement:
There’s a story of Hafiz the 14th century Sufi poet and teacher where a young a woman came to sit with him and she asked him a question: “master what is the sign of someone who truly knows God?” He took a while to respond as he looked at her with great compassion and said “My dear, it is someone who has learned to drop the knife, to drop the cruel knife we so often use upon our tender self and that of others.”
This is a great truth. How easily judgement rises in us directed either towards our self or others. Do you notice how that can happen so quickly even in a moment in a conversation? The knife is the judgment, the harshness, the aggression, the anger or the shame that rises up. Notice the contraction inside and how we can become closed to the other. The ego is fearfully protecting its own perspective. We are no longer able to love the truth.
Another tradition – ACIM - says that “to judge something truly would mean to be in possession of all the facts”. We rarely have all the facts; so often our judgments are based on ego assumptions and opinions rather than a deep awareness of everything about a person or complex situation. This is often particularly severe in relation to ourselves. We may have developed a judgment about ourselves which becomes a negative prism through which we see the world.
Most spiritual traditions stress the importance of humility. Jesus said “blessed are the poor in spirit”. I think this means blessed are those who no longer think that they are the centre of the universe, controlling everything and everyone for their own ends.
The humble one is aware of the interconnectedness of all things and all people and our reliance on the life energy of the universe that we call God. They have become poor in their ego-spirit in order to become filled full with the Holy Spirit, expressing their essence. This is a humility that is open to the deep wisdom of the soul, and of each other and of God. This wisdom knows that we are part of a great consciousness that fills the universe and that our role is to express that consciousness as fully as possible in our own lives.
This humility is one which is comfortable with “I don’t know” and so is fully open to learn and also at ease with Mystery: that which is unknowable. The main obstacle to true humility is ego humiliation, thinking we should know and being ashamed if we don’t. Cultivating an honest humble not knowing makes for the blessings of being poor in spirit.
Such an humility has great strength for it is founded on trust in God. It is a humility that knows that our calling is to live with such an alignment to God, not with the distortions of our wounded ego, but with the Spirit of God. This enables the possibility of waking up to the unique expression of Love, intelligence and creative life energy that can only be manifest by you.
Willingness is summed up in the words of Jesus from the garden of Gethsemane: “Thy will be done”. Willingness comes from the awareness that our very existence comes from the great Mystery of the universe, that creative energy that has birthed us and all things; we have our source in God. When we understand this then is the possibility of letting go of the usual control of our lives. The ego feels like a separate individual who has to compete for survival, controlling as much of our circumstances as possible. The song says “I did it my way”. The spiritual path of awakening suggests another way: the way of willingness and surrender. That we fulfil our unique role in the earth when we are willing to surrender our control to the Source of All. There is great freedom in this even if it can be scary at times. The Buddhist teacher Chogyam Rinpoche puts willingness something like this: “the bad news is it feels like falling through the air without a parachute; the good news is there is no ground”. As I write this we are approaching Easter and the Easter experience confirms that we have our source in God, that we have nothing to fear in being willing to follow the Way of Christ and though our physical bodies may suffer our being is eternal.
Many of us on the spiritual path can be impatient. We are passionate people. We want to be both awake and psycho-spiritually whole. We are also passionate about issues of social justice, climate change and so on. We may feel called to be sacred activists.
Let us be kind and patient with ourselves and with our fellow human beings. We are all on a journey together, a long journey; it takes time to wake up. Paul in Romans 8 put it this way: For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed…..We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time…….we hope for what we do not yet have, waiting for it patiently. I think patience coupled with generosity to one another are vital attitudes for awakening. We need to find that balance between striving for the change we want to see in the world and resting patiently with trust knowing that liberation ultimately comes from the hand of God. Sometimes we need to stop trying so hard and relax into God, that God’s will be done.
These then are some of the attitudes that go with waking up. Attitudes that open us up to continuing change and development for our own healing and for the healing of the world.
Jonathan Jelfs, September 2015
[i] I want to acknowledge the spiritual teacher Miranda MacPherson as the source for many of the ideas in this paper. See www.mirandamacpherson.com