July 29, 2017

The Core Characteristics of Wakefulness [What Different Cultures + Traditions Teach About Wakefulness]

The Core Characteristics of Wakefulness [What Different Cultures + Traditions Teach About Wakefulness]
The Leap Cover

It’s truly remarkable that so many people in different cultures at different times in history had the same insight: it was possible for them to transcend their normal state of being, which was limited and constricted, and cultivate a more expansive and intensive state.

It’s remarkable that so many different systems and paths developed independently as methods of transcending our normal state of sleep. It’s almost as if, three or four thousand years after the Fall began, something was stirring within the collective human psyche — an impulse to awaken. (In The Fall, I refer to this as the First Wave.)

The similarities between different spiritual traditions’ conceptions of the state of wakefulness (and the process of awakening) are so strong that it seems that they’re all speaking about the same fundamental state but interpreting and framing it in slightly different ways.

Drawing on the analogy I used earlier, they are looking at the same landscape from different vantage points. For example, it seems clear that the all-pervading spiritual force — God or the ground of reality — described by Jewish, Christian, and Sufi mystics is essentially the same universal spiritual force that Daoists refer to as the Dao and Hindu mystics as brahman. (The Jewish concept of En Sof is practically identical to the Hindu concept of brahman.) This all-pervading spiritual force is also essentially the same as the concept of spirit-force developed in indigenous cultures, as described in the previous chapter.

There are slight differences in the way spiritual traditions conceive of this force.

For example, the Dao is conceived in dynamic terms, as a flowing force that we need to align our lives with. Brahman is more static and neutral — we aim to experience union with it rather than harmonize our lives with it. But the overall similarity is much more striking than the divergence.

Across different traditions, this force is described as pervading all things and the spaces between all things. It underlies the whole phenomenal world in such a way that the phenomenal world may appear to arise from it, as a manifestation of it. It unifies all things, folds them all into its oneness. In addition, this spiritual force is frequently depicted as having qualities of radiance and bliss (as in the Vedantic concept of satchitananda, or being-consciousness-bliss).

In the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, brahman is often compared to the sun.

For example, the Gita states, “If the light of a thousand suns suddenly arose in the sky, that splendour might be compared to the radiance of the Supreme Spirit.”13 We ’ve also seen that the term Zohar can be translated as “splendor” or “brilliance.” And the Zohar itself describes the universe as pervaded with translucent light. Brilliant radiance is a quality of the awakened person’s inner self, too — this is the “inner light” of mystical Christianity or the “light of the atman” in Hinduism. This makes complete sense, of course, since the spiritual essence of the universe is also the essence of our own being.

(Interestingly, awakened people may also emit light. There may be an atmosphere of radiance around them that can be sensed and absorbed by other people.

Many reports of encounters with awakened people describe this radiance.

For example, when the English author and poet Edward Carpenter visited the spiritually awakened poet Walt Whitman, he was immediately aware of a “certain radiant power in him, a large benign effluence and inclusiveness, as of the sun.”14 Similarly, when the British spiritual author Paul Brunton visited the Indian sage Ramana Maharshi he described his awareness of a “spreading ripple of telepathic radiation from this mysterious and imperturbable man.”15)

Just as traditions conceive of an all-pervading spiritual force in slightly different ways, it’s easy to see their different concepts of wakefulness— sahaja samadhi, enlightenment, ming, devekut, union with the divine, baqa — as slightly different interpretations of the same essential state of being.

If we compare their descriptions of the characteristics of wakeful- ness, we see the same themes emerging again and again, although with different degrees of emphasis. The same themes emerging across different traditions suggests that they are the main characteristics of wakefulness itself, as it exists before interpretation.

Using the landscape analogy again, if the same features reoccur in every description of a lake from a different viewpoint, we can assume that they genuinely exist as inherent features of that lake. If just one person said that a mountain was purple, we may be doubtful, but if all the viewers said it was purple then we may be inclined to believe them.

So what are the core characteristics of the wakeful state according to the spiritual traditions we ’ve looked at?

Perhaps the strongest theme is union.

Wakefulness is a state in which we move beyond separateness and into connection and union. Most importantly, wakefulness means connecting with the spiritual essence of the universe — whether we call it brahman, the Dao, or God — and with the deepest part of ourselves. The universal essence is also the essence of our own being.

The biggest obstacle to this connection (both to the spiritual essence of the universe and to our own being) is our powerful sense of ego, with all its desires, ambitions, and attachments.

The ego’s strong boundaries enclose us within our own mental space; it separates us from the world. Therefore, we must weaken this self, soften its solid boundaries, so that we can transcend separateness and connect with spirit. (The traditions describe this process as self-annihilation and self-naughting.) Our senses of gravity and identity have to shift away from our narrow personal self and become part of a wider and deeper expanse of being.

A second characteristic of wakefulness highlighted by all the traditions we ’ve examined is inner stillness, or inner emptiness.

Awakened individuals don’t have busy, chattering minds and aren’t assailed by turbulent emotions and desires. They are peaceful inside; their consciousness is pure and calm, like a lake.

In fact, all traditions agree that developing inner stillness is an essential part of the process of awakening.

In other words, if you want to wake up, you have to learn to slow down and calm your mind, and transcend the layers of thought and emotion that cloud your consciousness. Regular meditation is important for this reason, among others. By meditating you may come to realize that you’re not your thoughts and make contact with deeper, more spacious layers of your being beyond thought.

Meister Eckhart describes “the storm of inward thought” that normally plagues our minds, and writes that “if God is to speak his word in the soul, she must be at rest and at peace.”16 Similarly, the Maitri Upanishad describes how, “When the mind is silent . . . it can enter into a world which is far beyond the mind: the highest End.”17

A third characteristic of the wakeful state across all traditions is self- sufficiency.

Awakened individuals have little or no concern for world success, possession, or personal ambition and are unaffected by praise, blame, or humiliation; they have no need for other people’s approval. They don’t need to add anything to themselves such as success, status, or wealth be- cause they already feel whole.

The Buddhist Heart Sutra clearly summarizes this:

“In their indifference to personal attainment, and their lack of desire for self-justification, enlightened men and women can never be humiliated or upset by others.”18 The Bhagavad Gita describes the awakened person as being “the same in pleasure and pain; to whom gold or stones or earth are one, and what is pleasing or displeasing leaves him in peace.”19

However, this lack of concern for other people’s opinions of them doesn’t mean that awakened individuals have no concern for other people.

On the contrary, their lack of self-interest and their increased sense of connection leads to a fourth characteristic of the wakeful state across spiritual traditions: a high degree of compassion and altruism.

At the same time as connecting with the spiritual essence of the world and with their own essence, awakened individuals connect strongly with other human beings.

They have a strong capacity for empathy, an ability to feel with other people. They can sense other people’s suffering, frustration, and pain, which gives rise to an altruistic impulse to alleviate their suffering or aid their development. Partly because their own ambitions and desires are no longer important to them, they feel a strong impulse to serve others, and to practice kindness and generosity. 

This spirit of altruism is clearly expressed by the seventh-century Buddhist monk Shantideva, who writes: “I wish to remove the suffering of every living being, enabling all to move towards enlightenment....My concern for the welfare of others gains me greater merit than any act of worship.”20

Ultimately, this compassionate attitude stems from an awareness that spirit is present in everyone so that, in a sense, we are everyone else.

Therefore, when other people suffer, we suffer ourselves. As the sixteenth- century Jewish mystic Moses Cordovero states, “Whoever sins injures not only himself but also that part of himself which belongs to another.” In this way, it’s important to love others because “the other is really oneself.”21

A fifth common theme of wakefulness among spiritual traditions (re- lated to the first theme of union) is the relinquishing of personal agency.

In other words, awakening means losing the sense that you are directing your own life and following your own ambitions or plans. Instead, your life becomes the expression of something greater than you, of a force that is flowing through you. This is the Daoist idea of wu wei — actionless activity when we realize that the Dao is our nature and everything we do is the natural expression of it. In monotheistic spiritual traditions, the mystic gives up their own personal will so that they can live through God — or so that God can live through them.

In Kabbalah, for instance, a person’s individual will has to be “raised” until it becomes one with En Sof, the divine principle that both pervades and transcends the world. When we align our personal will with God’s will, we become agents of that divine will. A powerful, transformational energy begins to flow through us with which we can help heal the world.

Let me end by briefly highlighting two other clear — and in some ways obvious — themes.

The first of these is that wakefulness brings a more intense and complete awareness of reality.

The world as we perceive it in ordinary consciousness is only a limited, shadow reality. As the Greek philosopher Plato expressed it, we ’re sitting in a cave, staring at the shadows on the wall in front of us, while the real world passes behind us. In reality, the world isn’t mundane and meaningless but radiant with meaning and harmony.

In reality, there’s oneness rather than separation.

In Indian Vedantic terms, the illusion of maya (deception) is uncovered, revealing a world of unity in place of an illusory world of duality and separateness. 

Or in the words of the eleventh-century Sufi mystic Al-Ghazali, this is a state “whose relation to your waking consciousness is analogous to the relation of the latter to dreaming. In comparison with this state your waking consciousness would be like dreaming!”22

Finally, and perhaps most obviously, wakefulness is seen across traditions as a state of intense well-being.

Every tradition agrees that to wake up means to transcend anxiety and fear and attain a sense of great serenity and bliss.

In Buddhism, bodhi entails a cessation of suffering. In Daoism, ming means living with spontaneous ease.

In Indian Vedanta, bliss is one of the qualities of consciousness itself, as in satchitananda (being-consciousness- bliss). The essence of brahman is joy: “Brahman is joy: for from joy all beings have come, by joy they all live, and unto joy they all return.”23 So self-realization is literally an awakening into bliss. Similarly, in Jewish spirituality, devekut is a state of joy and exaltation, as is the Sufi state of baqa.


13. Bhagavad Gita, 1988, p. 53.

14. Carpenter, 1906.

15. Brunton, 1972, p. 141.

16. Meister Eckhart, 1996, p. 11.

17. Upanishads, 1990, p. 103.

18. In van de Weyer, 2000, p. 7.

19. Bhagavad Gita, 1988, p. 68.

20. In van de Weyer, 2000, p. 8.

21. In Spenser, 1963, p. 200.

22. In Scharfstein, 1973, p. 28.

23. Upanishads, 1990, p. 111.

Excerpted from the book The Leap: The Psychology of Spiritual Awakening (An Eckhart Tolle Edition). Copyright ©2017 by Steve Taylor. Printed with permission from New World Library — www.newworldlibrary.com.

About the author

Dr Steve Taylor is a senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Beckett University, and the author of several best-selling books on psychology and spirituality. For the last three years he has been included (this year at no. 31) in Mind, Body, Spirit magazine’s list of the ‘100 most spiritually influential living people.’ His books include Waking From Sleep, The Fall, Out of the Darkness, Back to Sanity, and his latest book The Meaning. His books have been published in 18 languages, while his articles and essays have been published in over 40 academic journals, magazines and newspapers.

He lectures on psychology at Leeds Metropolitan University, and lives in Manchester, England. Visit www.stevenmtaylor.com for more information.

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