The great Japanese Zen master Hakuin once noted that he had 17 great awakenings and thousands of minor ones. He was continuing to practice assiduously as he made the comment. Hakuin was practicing in a culture and a spiritual tradition in which there was a profound respect for the infinite varieties and degrees of awakening and its embodiment by a human being. In the West we love to simplify, ignore nuance, and cut to the chase. What are we to make of Hakuin’s statement, when so many current teachers claim that they woke up at a particular moment in time, and then are done? What would Hakuin think if he wandered into today’s spiritual marketplace free for all?
Even so, how could spiritual awakening be a curse? Isn’t awakening to your true nature the most important experience available to a human being? Well, yes and no. Much has been written about the obvious importance of self-realization, and does not need to be repeated here. What are the downsides? We will only address one potential downside here, and that is the tendency to believe the erroneous assumption that in a genuine awakening you wake up once and for all, and you are finished. Nothing could be further from the truth.
There are two major aspects to spiritual awakening. The first aspect is the nondual realization itself. All major spiritual traditions (Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, traditional Advaita Vedanta) which have incorporated awakening as a central aspect of their teaching recognize that there are many “levels” of awakening. Direct awareness itself does not have levels, or any other qualities that can be described. However, the manifestation and embodiment of this awareness by a human being living at a particular time, in a particular culture, and in a particular bodymind with its own unique history and lineage is subject to infinite degrees of realization. This distinction between pure awareness and its embodied manifestation, which seems so obvious and elementary, has eluded many current commentators, especially those from the neoadvaita perspective. From the perspective of the absolute (nondual) there are no levels or degrees of anything. Simultaneously and equally true is the perspective of the relative (dual), in which discrimination and progressive development are real and important. Ordinary ways of thinking and perceiving deny the truth of the absolute, which is without degrees and is unchanging-the birthless and deathless. Much current teaching on awakening only acknowledges the absolute while completely ignoring the equal value and importance of the relative. Of course the ultimate realization completely transcends the dual and the nondual while denying neither. This unfettered, fully embodied awareness moves freely in the world without concern for such matters. This freedom in motion knows neither before nor after, yet shows up for appointments on time.
Our concern here is with the denial of the relative once the absolute is realized. The enduring, experiential realization of the absolute is not the end of the path. In many ways, it is the beginning. This realization must be embodied and manifest in this body and mind in this time and in this place. The embodiment of nondual awareness can be seen as having three major components or aspects, representing the mind, the body, and the emotions. There could also be other major aspects, such as the energetic, but these three are our focus now. What does someone look like who has truly embodied this awareness fully? How do they feel, act, talk, and think? We may have fixed ideas about how we believe they should act, think, and feel, but how do they, in fact?
Even with a deep and enduring nondual realization, which is still quite rare, it is mistaken to assume that all psychological and biological problems disappear. Deeply realized beings do not become omniscient. Nor do they suddenly become skilled and knowledgeable psychologists who can ably assist with any personal problem. Yet, the questions asked of almost any teacher in any context are nearly exclusively psychological in nature. Why do we assume that a deeply realized spiritual teacher would be able to comment on profound personal problems in a helpful manner? A few years ago I attended two 5-day silent retreats with a well-known spiritual teacher for whom I have enormous respect. Virtually every single question asked was psychological in nature. The questions were about loss, addictions, codependency, grieving, anger, dysfunctional relationships with lovers, children, or parents, terror of intimacy, chronic physical or emotional pain, and so forth. I do not remember a single question about awakening or spiritual practice, but I assume there must have been a few. Doesn’t that seem somehow odd?
While some conditioned and automatic programming may weaken or largely disappear in the flash of deep self-realization, plenty is left over. How do we understand and address these ‘leftover’ issues? It is true that many of these leftover issues may gradually dissipate somewhat over time through the normal processes of living. That is one reason why major spiritual traditions caution against purporting to teach or even discusses self-realization until it has been thoroughly embodied. This process is open-ended but can easily take 5-10 years or more for it to thoroughly marinate and stabilize in a given individual. It is understood that during this ‘deepening’ process an active effort is being made to see through remaining blocks that obstruct direct awareness from operating freely through the bodymind.
From a pure nondual perspective, there are no blocks to awareness, nor is there a person to imagine that they have such blocks. Therefore it is not necessary or even possible to pay attention to these imaginary blocks which never existed except in the mind and its misunderstanding of reality. Who would pay attention except the character, which is imaginary and of no importance anyway? All psychological problems, bad habits, addictions and so forth are dismissed as the province of an imaginary character that is not real and does not require attention. At the level of the nondual, this perspective is absolutely accurate. Nothing is real, including who and what we think we are. From the equally valid perspective of duality, such notions are transparent nonsense.
From the perspective of the absolute, what is the role of compassion? How and why would we assist those who still suffer and do not know that nothing is real and that their suffering is imaginary? What do we do about obvious psychological problems that persist even after a deep realization? Does self-realization end the need for psychotherapy or psychiatric medication? Real awakening is liberation. Unfortunately it has become saddled with unrealistic, egoic expectations. Can we develop a realistic and informed understanding about what awakening is, and what it does and doesn’t do in the context of a particular individual human being? What is the path after a deep and continuous self-realization? Is there more, or is more just a figment of the dualistic mind?