Common myths about awakening

Trying to follow a spiritual path can be confusing. Even though we realise there’s one Truth that’s being pointed to, it’s sometimes hard to reconcile the advice, views and pointers offered by different teachers.

The English language isn’t well equipped to handle some of the nondual teachings on offer and so we have no common agreed terminology to help us out. Even if we did, it’s apparent that some teachers are basing their reflections within a system or philosophy or theology that’s been handed down to them, be that from Buddhism, Advaita or their own teacher.

As paradoxical as it sounds, it’s really helpful to bear in mind that we need to take full ownership of our own inquiry. Remember, no one can give you awakening; this realisation must be seen individually (so to speak), it can’t be shared as information. A teacher or guide can talk about Truth but they can never talk Truth, any more than you can talk a sunset. Talking about it won’t share it, it can only reference it.

Because of these challenges and also some individual preferences and ideas that get tagged on along the way, there are some common myths about what leads to spiritual awakening and the ‘requirements’ one needs in order to awaken. Before launching into a few of the more common ones I think it’s worth sharing one brief reflection that might save a lot of confusion. It’s much easier to get this if you think about a spectrum of awakening or unfolding. Along this spectrum, which we’re all on, the point at which the sense-of-self, the belief in a personal ‘me’ dissolves can come at the start, the middle or much further along. In other words ‘awakening’ isn’t an event (although we often think of it that way). This seeing through of the illusion of self might be, but awakening isn’t, it’s a process that begins before this and continues long, long after. Okay, here we go:

Myth 1: ‘You need to have silenced the mind and be able to stop thoughts at will’. Not as common as it once was, this myth still persists and gets reprinted in the works of some authors. Let me say clearly this is NOT a requirement for awakening. Even after awakening, it might or might not happen. The basis for it is most often a change in our relationship to thought, which we come to see as a trivial commentary and not worthy of attention. Attention doesn’t linger on thought, so it’s not noticed. But we don’t need this to happen for the sense of self to be seen through.

Myth 2: ‘You must have perfect mindfulness’. Mindfulness is an essential asset there’s no doubt. How can we see this moment clearly if we’re not attentive to it? But perfect mindfulness? No. Like all skills, with practice it’s something we’ll get better at but setting a target for perfection is a sure fire way to set yourself up for frustration and disappointment, usually reinforcing the sense of a me: ‘I’m no good at this, I’ll never get it!’

Myth 3: ‘Awakening takes lifetimes of dedicated practice’. This is one of my favourite myths. It’s often perpetuated to keep the seeker in a state of permanent discipleship through putting awakening on a pedestal they feel unworthy of ever reaching. Awakening is awakening to this moment, in this moment. Is there any point in trying to locate that in a far off future time?

Myth 4: ‘You need a special teacher to awaken’. Hmmm, so all of those people who didn’t have one, they somehow don’t count? I won’t name names here but I bet I could come up with a fair few who didn’t have a teacher (and neither did I for what it’s worth). I’m not saying a teacher is a bad thing but it’s back to the expectation that someone can give you this. They can’t. You have to inquire, look, realise. It’s that simple, and nowhere you can go and no one you meet will change that fact. Teachers provide pointers, and maybe even inspiration but they can’t provide awakening.

Myth 5: ‘I can’t awaken now, I have too much going on in my life’. So, you really think that for everyone who awakened life somehow paused and allowed them a period of gentle grace to find Truth? Catch yourself on! Life goes on and it doesn’t stop. This goes back to the ‘future awakening’ myth. Awakening is a here and now thing, whatever the content of your life. There are literally no circumstances that can stop it if you’re looking and you don’t need to stop anything to look.

I’m sure there are other myths you’ve come across and if so feel free to share them in the comments below. If anything I’ve said has left you more confused than you were before then please ask, I’d love to hear about it.

8 thoughts on “Common myths about awakening

  1. That you become egoless/selfless/driven only by compassion. Or, that you cease to have normal human motivation in other ways. Really you’re the same and want more or less the same things, except without addiction, guilt or other suffering.
    That “you” can’t get this if the effort to get this is coming from “you” – as if some magical super-human motivation that you have no way of achieving is needed – and conveniently this is also the reason for your failure. Really, you need only the most ordinary personal motivation and effort to achieve awakening. Though, you do need to be strongly motivated enough that you are prepared to change.
    That you are already awakened and so there is nothing you need to do. This is a confusion of levels. Yes, seeking for something other than what is right here and now is the central problem, but this does not mean that there is no process of personal change or end point.
    That self-indulgent desire is bad, such as drinking a sugary drink on a hot day. Really life is so enjoyable that this can increase when you are awakened.
    That if you conceptualize anything, or disagree with the conceptualization of another person, you are not awakened. Really you continue to work with concepts just as before except that you don’t believe any of it is “the truth”.

  2. There are so many ways to enter the “Gateless Gate”. For some there are various stirrings and “small” awakening experiences – for others it is sudden and fairly complete. Some will go “back to sleep” for a while due to habit energy, fear, or other reasons. Others claim their awakening was complete. Hence “many are called but few are chosen” speaks to the difficulty of making the jump and having the faith in what was experienced and continues to be experienced (if we let ourselves).

    Frankly, I don’t know how many beings had complete, unexcelled awakening, as the historic Buddha (Gautama) was purported to have had. In any case, just prior to his awakening the Buddha was supposedly tempted by Mara (his own grasping mind, really), but he prevailed against it. It is said that he would meet with Mara (the Tempter) on various occasions later on. He also continued formal meditation practice.

    To me, this means that even the so-called “Great Ones”, still had desires, habit energy, and remnants of deluded mind after awakening. They were, however awake to Reality, No-self, Self, the Absolute, Suchness, or whatever you want to call it.

    One thing that I must add regards how each person experiences his or her awakening. Paradoxically, it is not even the person that experiences it, since there is no self (i.e. separate person) that is doing the experiencing. You might say there is no experiencer, only the experience. Nonetheless, the experience is somehow personal and specific to that individual being. That is part of the paradoxical beauty of awakening!

    The awakened life continues to have a personal flavor whether we like it or not. We just keep on finding out who (or what) we really are as well as what we’re not, so to speak.

    • Thank you, that’s a beautiful reflection. No experiencer, just experiencing, but this is still ‘filtered’ through the elements of what might be called the personality even though this is no longer associated with a belief in a separate ‘me’. This takes us back to the tenth fetter and first step of Dependent Origination: ignorance. This is ignorance of the ‘structures’ (habitual pathways one might say) through which this experiencing is received. Seeing these requires great subtlety as they are our last attachment to the ‘personal’. Prior to this, yes, I like the way you put it, ‘the paradoxical beauty of awakening’ and all it entails.

      • Thanks for your comments, Andrew. Having contemplated what you wrote, here is what I would like to add based upon my experience and understanding.

        The five skandhas are empty (have no inherent existence), being part of conditioned existence; however, and this is even more subtle, so is nirvana, even though it is part of unconditioned existence.

        That being said, what happens to the skandhas after awakening? What happens to nirvana after awakening?

        The skandhas do not disappear after awakening. They are just seen as empty, with habit energy (including ignorance and delusion) unwinding like a fan that keeps turning, even though the fan has been switched off. Nirvana does not exist without samsara, i.e., it has no inherent existence. It shines its liberating “light” upon its flip side, samsaric existence.

        By who we are, I was referring to Being. By who we are not, I was pointing at Non-being. However, here is the rub, as one might say, seemingly beyond the ken of even supramundane Mind, at least in my experience. Beyond being (and existence) is non-being, and beyond non-being is… I’d appreciate your comments as a member of the cyber-sangha.

      • Thank you again. I’ll offer this for reflection with no claim of authority. The five skandhas is a very useful model. Like all models it does not represent absolute truth, simply a perspective that we might take in order to gain insight. Once we have, we are free to set this model (like all models) aside. You’re quire right the skandhas remain, empty as they ever were but not seen or fabricated by mind into some ‘thing’ (i.e. they are not seen as a ‘me’).

        As for ‘nirvana’, it is helpful to note that this word implies cooling. I have heard that in the time of the Buddha it could be applied to the way a pot of rice, for example, cools. Within the understanding of the time heat was held to be everywhere but gathered up into one place when something became hot. Cooling was seen as that ‘gathered’ heat returning to a homogeneous state. So nirvana, rather than implying a state, points rather to a process or tendency towards cooling.

        In relation to this human experience what this points us towards is a letting go of whatever arises. The ‘heat’ of emotional energy based on ‘sticky’ thoughts, beliefs, fixed views, conditioned tendencies is let go of rather than being retained through these being identified with, held to, believed in or habitually held through ignorance (i.e. not seen clearly, for example in the case of conditioning from our past). So perhaps nirvana might be more usefully viewed as a quality/tendency that develops through and following awakening until that quality/tendency fulfils its potential, at which point we might say nirvana has been realised.

        In looking at your last point and sticking with the Buddhist structure, if that’s okay, ‘non-being’ points towards the Unborn (Unborn, Uncreated, Unformed, Unconditioned). Nondual experiencing opens us to realising the Unborn. There is no way to convey the Unborn in language apart from perhaps using these four terms the Buddha applied which refer to what it is not. It would not even be true to say ‘it is’ as this would imply a degree of manifestation. However it can be known/experienced in the moment. The experiencing of the Unborn reveals that there is nothing beyond. We may experience through the apparent conditioned or the unconditioned/unborn – this is the spectrum that opens up with awakening.

        Using words to relate aspects of our experiencing is difficult enough at times even when we refer to the conditioned aspects of this human experience; for the Unborn, well words just can’t and don’t help, at least not for me, but I hope this answer has been of some use.

  3. Thanks for your comments and for sharing your understanding. I think we are on the same wave length regarding the skandhas (with no “me” holding them together; the nature of nirvana (not a state); what “is” beyond being and non-being; and the unexplainable experience of the unborn.

    I find your analogy of nirvana as a cooling process very appropriate (at least in my experience). I prefer it to the classic “snuffing out” description. Although, as you said, it should at one point reach its full potential. At that point I feel that it will have served its purpose, eventually snuffing itself out…Lol. I guess that what the Buddhists refer to as paranirvana (beyond nirvana).

    The reason I intimated a question regarding what is beyond being and non-being relates to contemplation/meditation that I have been doing in this regard. I feel that it is the unborn (potentiality for want of a better word) that we experience when we are in a place of fullness/emptiness (you might say pregnant with potential). However, “experience” may not be the right word.

    I have the impression that the unborn manifests due to subtle threads of energy that transform into the manifest (form) from seeds of consciousness akin to thought. Regardless of the specific process, in the moment, it (the manifest) seems to leap spontaneously into existence. The analogy would be like a fish suddenly jumping out of the water.

    I feel that what is beyond the unborn is not necessarily nothing. Rather, it is the natural expression of the unborn into form, beyond the unborn, beyond the born. The “seeds” are not from everyday individual consciousness. It seems that there is a seamless non-dual Reality that just happens. As humans we are fortunate to be able to “be” it AND be aware of it.

    Boundless and free is the sky of Samádhi!
    Bright the full moon of wisdom!
    Truly, is anything missing now?
    Nirvana is right here, before our eyes,
    This very place is the Lotus Land,
    This very body, the Buddha.

    Hakuin

    I appreciate being able to exchange with you.

    • I think you’re right when you say ‘experience’ might not be the word. In fact the more we attempt to fit ineffable experiencing into a framework of referenced thought (thought tends to relate new experiences to previous ones to see where they ‘fit’ within consciousness), the further we get from the original experiencing, which, like a river flows on and on, never returning. When we then, through memory, relate to the thought ‘about’ the experience and try to understand in terms of that, we’re only ever looking at a partial and dated reflection of part of the original.

      So it helps, when seeing the limitation of thought, to recognise that it will only serve us partially as a way to understand that which forever lies beyond it. Seeing this we don’t grasp onto such thoughts, however beautiful they might appear.

      Bearing this in mind, when it comes to looking at the relationship between what we label as the Unborn and that which appears Manifest, we’re already at an insurmountable disadvantage. However, as close as we might be able to come – and again this is merely offered for reflection – is to consider the analogy of induction. When a magnet induces an electric current there is no contact, nothing is transmitted or transformed. But there is what we might call a causal relationship, isn’t there? No direct contact in any way, but something we might refer to as causality nonetheless. I hope this helps.

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