What does it mean to be awake? What are the characteristics of the state of ‘spiritual wakefulness’ or ‘enlightenment’?
I’ll summarise these characteristics or signs of spiritual awakening as they have emerged from my research. Then we’ll look at where these characteristics come from — that is, try to identify how the state of wakefulness gives rise to them.
These characteristics of spiritual awakening are uniform. Typically, permanently awakened people experience all of these characteristics and usually at roughly the same degree of intensity.
This uniformity is one of the most striking things to emerge from my research into the signs and symptoms of spiritual awakening and emphasizes the validity of seeing wakefulness as a distinct psychological state. The only significant variation is in terms of the overall intensity of wakefulness. The continuum of states of wakefulness (editors note: wakefulness is a term that refers to the state of being spiritually aware or awake at above average levels) ranges from less intense to very intense. The intensity of the characteristics of wakefulness obviously varies according to the intensity of a person’s overall wakefulness. That is, if a person experiences a high intensity of wakefulness, they will obviously also experience a high level of well-being, a high degree of mental quietness, a very pronounced tendency toward altruism, a very pronounced lack of group identity, and so on. The reverse obviously applies to someone with a lower intensity of wakefulness.
It’s also worth noting that many of the characteristics I’m going to highlight are common to temporary spiritual awakening experiences, too.
A New World: Perceptual Characteristics
The clearest way in which spiritual awakening manifests itself is in terms of the wakeful person’s different perception and experience of the world around them. One of the man signs or symptoms of an awakened individual is that they don’t perceive the world in the same way as other people do. The world is as different a place to them as the world of a child is to the world of an adult — or, you might say, as the world of a pre-civilized indigenous person is to the world of a modern Westerner.
1. Intensified Perception
In wakefulness, perception is vivid and direct. Spiritually awakened people see the world in a very childlike way — struck by the wonder, beauty, and intricacy of phenomena that other people take for granted and don’t pay much attention to. One of the signs of spiritual awakening is that the world is a brighter, more fascinating and beautiful place to them. In particular, they are captivated by nature — the amazing is-ness and beauty of the natural landscape, the sky, and the sea; the strangeness, complexity, and intricacy of animals, plants, and other phenomena.
This intensity of perception is sometimes experienced as an openness to experience or, in slightly different terms, an increased sensitivity. It’s as if filters have been removed or shutters have been opened and, as a result, more impressions come into our minds and affect us more powerfully. As we’ve seen, intensified perception can sometimes feel overwhelming in sudden spiritual awakening experiences (as it can also be in psychedelic experiences), but it usually isn’t a problem once wakefulness becomes established.
All of the spiritually awakened individuals I interviewed commented on this intensified perception. One person told me how the world had become “sharper, more real,” while another was “struck by how fresh everything seems.” Another person remarked that “colours seemed brighter, more alive.” Others described a sense of awe and a new appreciation for simple pleasures and activities like walking, cooking, eating, and simply attending to their surroundings.
2. Increased Presentness / Timelessness
Another symptom of spiritual awakening is that also brings a different perception of time or, you might say, a shift in time orientation. In wakefulness, the past and the future become much less important, and the present becomes correspondingly more important. Awakened individuals spend much less time recalling past experiences or ruminating over past events, just as they spend less time looking forward to the future, daydreaming about future events or focusing on future goals. Instead, they focus on their present experience, on the surroundings they’re in, the people they’re with, and the sensations and impressions they’re having.
For some people, this increased presentness leads to a sense of the expansiveness of time. Time seems to somehow open up, slow down, or even disappear all together. This sign of spiritual awakening is the sense of the eternal now that is sometimes described by mystics, when the past, future, and present all merge into one.
Ultimately, the past and the future are concepts created by the human mind. We never actually experience either because our minds and bodies are always in the present. The past and the future only exist in thought, whereas the present does not exist in thought.
In addition, as I suggest in my book Making Time, our normal linear perception of time is a mental construct generated by our strong sense of ego. The weaker our sense of ego becomes, the more linear time seems to fade away. Our perception of time slows and expands — and eventually disappears into now-ness.
3. Awareness of “Presence” or an All-Pervading Spiritual Energy
At higher intensities of spiritual awakening, we experience symptoms like becoming aware of a spiritual force that pervades all things and the spaces between things. In my research, one person described this as “a deep sense of a living presence within that is both magnificent and also very ordinary.” Another person described one of his symptoms of awakening as “a vast presence which is just infinite and pretty mind-blowing. Especially in nature.” Another person spoke of an “awesome presence” that he referred to as “God.” This force is sometimes described in terms of a “source,” something underlying and fundamental that doesn’t just pervade all things but gives rise to them, too. In a sense, all things are the manifestation of this force.
4. Aliveness, Harmony, and Connectedness
At a lower intensity of wakefulness, a person may not be aware of this all-pervading spiritual force directly but they may still be able to indirectly sense its effects.
One of the signs of spiritual awakening is a sense of aliveness. To the awakened person, there are no such things as inanimate objects. Even natural phenomena that aren’t biologically alive (such as clouds, sea, or stones) and man made objects (such as pieces of furniture or buildings) shine with the radiant aliveness of spirit. Objects that are biologically alive become more powerfully animate. One spiritually awake woman described how “everything looked and felt ultra real and alive. I kept staring out of the window and just marveling… I could almost see the atoms in everything I looked at. I had the strongest feeling that everything was perfectly okay and perfect in the universe.”
This woman’s recollection touches on another indirect effect of this all-pervading spiritual force — a sense that “all is well.” As spiritual texts and mystics tell us, the nature of this energy is blissful. It has a quality of bliss or joy in the same way that water has a quality of wetness. So when we perceive its presence in the world, there’s a sense of harmony — again, an awareness that is commonly described by indigenous peoples. As a symptom of spiritual awakening, we sense that the universe is a benevolent place and that harmony and meaning are its fundamental qualities.
Finally, this spiritual energy underlies and pervades all things and so creates a sense of connectedness or oneness. An awakened person may have the sense that the boundaries between superficially separate and distinct objects have melted away. They may still sense what some of my participants described as “the oneness of everything” or “the oneness of the universe.”
A New Self: Affective Characteristics
When we experience spiritual awakenings, one common sign is that our inner life changes. There’s a shift in how we feel inside, in our psychological experience. This shift changes us so profoundly that, in a general sense, we feel as if we have a new identity, as if we have been reborn.
We do take on a new identity as the wakeful self-system emerges and replaces the old self-system of sleep. In cases of gradual spiritual awakening, this identity shift happens very slowly, as the old self-system is gradually remolded into a different form. It may not even be a noticeable symptom or sign of spiritual awakening, except in retrospect. In sudden spiritual awakening experiences the shift is so abrupt and dramatic that many people can pinpoint the exact moment it occurs.
In this section we’ll examine the inner changes and signs of spiritual awakening that contribute to this overall sense of becoming a completely different person.
5. Inner Quietness
With spiritual awakening and enlightenment comes a dramatic reduction of the inner noise of our thought-chatter. In our normal state, this streams through our mind almost constantly — a whirl of associations and images, worries and daydreams that only usually stops when our attention is absorbed in external things. This thought-chatter is such a normal part of our experience that many of us take it for granted. We’re so immersed in it — and so identified with it — that we don’t even realize it’s there, and we certainly don’t realize how powerfully it affects us. It disturbs our inner world, giving rise to negative thoughts and emotions. It disconnects us from the essence of our being, constantly reinforces our ego-identity, and strengthens our sense of separateness.
Almost all of the awakened individuals I spoke to described similar spiritual awakening symptoms, although with variations. Some people — a small proportion — reported that their minds had become completely quiet, with a complete cessation of thought-chatter. More typically, though, people reported that there was still some thought activity in their minds but much less than before.
Others reported that while thought-chatter was still there (although not as much as before), they felt less identified with it. They were able to stand back, observe their thoughts, and let them flow by without becoming immersed in or overly affected by them.
6. Transcendence of Separation / Sense of Connection
In spiritual awakening and enlightenment, the sense of otherness between us and the world fades away. We no longer feel that we’re “in here” looking out at a world that seems to be “out there.” We no longer observe from a distance — we’re part of the flow of the world’s unfolding is-ness. Separation dissolves into connection. In the same way that we sense that all things are connected to each other, we feel that we’re connected to all things. We’re part of the oneness of all things.
This sense of connection manifests itself in different ways and at different degrees of intensity as one of the signs of spiritual awakening. At the most basic level, a person may feel strongly connected to other human beings, other living beings in general, or to the whole natural world. A sense of connection to the spiritual force that pervades the whole universe and that forms the essence of our being may occur at higher intensities of wakefulness and is one of the main signs of spiritual awakening. In other words, we may not just be aware of this spiritual force but also feel connected to it.
At a still higher intensity of spiritual wakefulness, a sense of connection may intensify into a sense of oneness. With this symptom of spiritual awakening, a person may feel that they exist in a state of unity with all things — even that they are all things. They may not just feel that they are one with the world but also that they actually are the world. Their sense of separation may dissolve away to the extent that there’s no distinction at all between them and what they perceive.
7. Empathy and Compassion
This sense of connection is closely linked to the high levels of empathy and compassionassociated with spiritual awakening. When we’re connected to other beings — animals and the natural world as well as human beings — we’re able to sense what they’re experiencing, to feel what they’re feeling. If they’re suffering, we sense it and feel the impulse to comfort them or try to alleviate their pain. We’re touched by other people’s pain because there’s no separation between our being and theirs.
Empathy, in its deepest sense, is the ability to “feel with” other people by experiencing a shared sense of being with them. This ability to “feel with” other beings gives rise to compassion and love. Love stems from a sense of connection and oneness, a sense that you are another person — or other people — and so you belong to them and share their experience.
Well-being is perhaps the most obvious symptom of spiritual awakening generated by wakefulness.
Awakened individuals may not live in a state of complete uninterrupted bliss, but they are generally much more content than other people. One major source of this well-being is freedom from the psychological discord that plagues human beings in our sleep state — habitual worry about the future, feelings of negativity about the past, and a general sense of unease. Spiritually awakened people are much less prone to negative states such as boredom, loneliness, and dissatisfaction. The atmosphere of their inner world is less charged with negativity and much more harmonious.
The feeling of well-being in spiritual awakening is related to a sense of appreciation. In wakefulness, people are more likely to feel a sense of gratitude for their health, freedom, loved ones, and other good things in their lives. In our sleep state, we likely take these things for granted and fail to appreciate their true value. Appreciation is an important sign and symptom of spiritual awakening, especially in terms of well-being because it helps free us from wanting. In Buddhist terms, we become free of craving and so free of the psychological suffering this creates.
9. Absence of (or Decreased) Fear of Death
Fear in general decreases in the wakeful state and fear of death is our most fundamental fear. The ego feels especially fragile in the face of death. The fact that death could strike us down at any moment — and will eventually reduce everything we have achieved and accumulated to nothing — creates a basic sense of meaninglessness, especially if we don’t believe in the possibility of life after death.
This decreased fear of death is related to the transcendence of the separate ego — another sign and symptom of spiritual awakening. Because our own ego isn’t the epicenter of our universe anymore, its demise no longer seems such a tragic prospect. We know that our own death isn’t the end of all things; the world that is part of our identity will continue.
However, perhaps the main reason why the awakened person loses fear of death is because of a different attitude toward — and understanding of — death. Spiritual awakening brings an understanding that death isn’t the end, that the essence of our being will continue to exist after the dissolution of our bodies.
From the materialistic worldview derived from our sleep state, it seems completely clear that there’s no life after death. Our consciousness is just the product of brain activity; when our brain stops functioning, our consciousness ceases, too. But from the spiritually awakened perspective, reality is more complex than this. The essence of our being transcends our brain and our individual identity. Death isn’t the end of consciousness but a transformation of consciousness.
A New Mind: Conceptual and Cognitive Characteristics
The conceptual symptoms of spiritual awakening we’re going to look at refer to how awakened people see themselves in relation to the world and other human beings, and how they conceive of the world and other human beings.
10. Lack of Group Identity
In the sleep state we have a strong tendency to identify ourselves, to give ourselves labels in order to enhance our fragile sense of self. We like to define ourselves in terms of our religion, ethnicity, nationality, and political affiliation, and also by the labels of our careers, achievements, and qualifications. Defining ourselves in these ways gives us a sense of belonging, and bolsters our egos. We feel that we’re not alone; we’re part of something bigger than ourselves.
In spiritual awakening experiences this need for identity and belonging fades away. People no longer feel affiliated with any particular religion or nationality, just as they no longer feel defined by their careers or their achievements. They no longer feel that they are Americans or Jews or scientists or socialists. They don’t feel any pride in their nationalities, ethnicities, or qualifications. And they don’t have a sense of otherness or feel enmity to members of other groups. They feel that such labels are superficial and meaningless. They don’t see any difference between Americans or Iraqis, Christians, or Muslims; they treat all people with equal respect. If they see themselves with any kind of identity, it’s as global citizens, inhabitants of the planet Earth, beyond nationality or border.
Another sign of a spiritually awakened individual is that they often have a similar attitude toward different spiritual traditions, too. Even if they are affiliated with a particular tradition, they don’t feel that this tradition is the only true and valid one, as religious fundamentalists do. As a sign of spiritual awakening, they have an open and ecumenical attitude, and they recognize that different traditions are simply expressions of the same underlying truths.
11. Wide Perspective: A Universal Outlook
As a sign of spiritual awakening, awakened individuals have a wide sense of perspective, a macrocosmic outlook. They aren’t preoccupied with their personal problems and concerns to the exclusion of everything else. They know they’re not the center of the universe.
This means that they have a spiritual awareness of the wider impact of their individual actions. They’re aware of how their life choices affect others, or the earth itself, and so are more likely to live ethically and responsibly. For example, they may decide not to buy or use goods that are produced by exploited workers or oppressive regimes. Aware of how their own lifestyle could contribute to damage to the environment, they’re more likely to adopt an environmentally friendly lifestyle.
This wide perspective that occurs as a common symptom of spiritual awakening also means that, for spiritually awakened individuals, social or global issues are as real and important as their own personal concerns. They’re likely to feel a sense of concern for oppressed groups, social problems like poverty and inequality, or global problems like climate change and the extinction of other species.
12. Heightened Sense of Morality
This wide sense of perspective has moral implications. As we have seen, awakened people tend to be more ethical and responsible, more compassionate and altruistic. But awakening also fosters a more all-encompassing and unconditional type of morality. Awakened individuals don’t practice moral exclusion; that is, they don’t just show concern and kindness toward people with whom they share superficial similarities of religion or ethnicity but extend their benevolence to all human beings indiscriminately.
Another moral spiritual awakening symptom is that the awakened person’s sense of right and wrong (or good and bad) isn’t culturally determined but stems from an innateknowing, a deep moral certainty that transcends their own self-interest and culture. For spiritually awakened individuals, justice and fairness are universal principles that transcend laws or conventions. They may even break laws and potentially sacrifice their own well-being — perhaps even their lives — in order to uphold moral principles.
13. Appreciation and Curiosity
In the sleep state, the process of familiarization that switches off our attention to the phenomenal world acts on our conceptual awareness, too. It switches off our attention to things we should ideally feel grateful for. I call this the “taking for granted syndrome,” which means that rather than feeling grateful for what we have, we feel dissatisfied, which is not one of the symptoms of spiritual awakening. Rather than appreciating what we have, we want more.
But awakened individuals do feel grateful after a spiritual awakening. They don’t get used to the good things in their lives once they’ve had them for a while. They appreciate the value of their health and their freedom, the beauty and benevolence of their partners, and the innocence and radiance of their children. They have the ability to count their blessings, no matter how long they have had them. They feel a profound sense of gratitude for small and simple experiences, which is one of the primary signs of spiritual awakening.
This sense of appreciation also leads to curiosity and openness. Because awakened people don’t take life itself for granted, they are always open to the new and unfamiliar. They don’t feel satisfied with what they already know and never feel that their understanding of the world is complete. They’re eager to explore new ideas and skills, take on new challenges, travel to new places, and so on. This is another way in which they’re similar to children. The world is a fascinating place as a result of a spiritual awakening, and they’re keen to explore it more deeply.
A New Life: Behavioral Characteristics
The behavioral characteristics we’re going to examine now are the outward expression of the perceptual, affective, and conceptual symptoms of spiritual awakening we’ve looked at already. They are the fruits of those inner changes, expressing themselves in terms of new traits, habits, and ways of living.
14. Altruism and Engagement
Spiritually developed individuals are commonly believed to be detached from the world and not particularly concerned about what is happening in it. Their spiritual enlightenment supposedly makes them indifferent to the trials and tribulations of ordinary people in everyday life. We imagine them sitting on mountaintops or in monasteries, basking in their own self-realization.
In my research on spiritual awakening, I’ve consistently found the opposite to this kind of detachment — spiritually awakened individuals tend to become more altruistic. Altruism is the natural fruit of the awakened person’s strong capacity for compassion, their universal outlook, and their innate sense of justice. The following signs and symptoms of spiritual awakening are often present: We feel a strong impulse to alleviate other people’s suffering and to help people fulfill their potential. We have a strong idealistic desire to change the world for the better, an impulse to serve other people and contribute to the human race in some way. We may feel a sense of mission, to help the human race move through our present phase of chaos and crisis into a new era of harmony.
15. Enjoyment of Inactivity: The Ability to “Be”
Awakened individuals love doing nothing. They relish solitude, quietness, and inactivity. In my book Back to Sanity I suggest that this is one of the most obvious differences between living in a state of “humania” — that is, our normal state of human madness — and in a state of inner harmony. In humania, which is equivalent to a state of sleep, people find it difficult to do nothing or be alone with themselves because this means facing the discord of their own being and the turbulence of their thoughts. As a result, they feel compelled to seek distractions and activities — that is, external things in which to immerse their attention — so that their attention doesn’t turn inward, into their own being. But in a state of harmony, which is equivalent to wakefulness, this isn’t necessary. We can rest contentedly within our own being because there’s no turbulence or discord inside us. This is another one of the signs and symptoms of spiritual awakening. We don’t need to constantly do things just for the sake of it or constantly supply ourselves with distractions. Rather than fear quietness and inactivity, we enjoy them deeply because they allow us to touch into the radiance of our own well-being.
16. Beyond Accumulation and Attachment / Nonmaterialism
In wakefulness, the impulse to accumulate falls away. It’s no longer important for us to try to accumulate possessions, wealth, status, success, or power during spiritual enlightenment. In sleep, the urge to accumulate is a response to our sense of incompleteness and fragility. We try to bolster our sense of self by adding possessions, achievements, and power, in the same way that an insecure king continually builds up a castle and reinforces its walls. Similarly, we become overly attached to preexisting aspects of our identity, such as our appearance or our intellect. We derive a sense of specialness from them, which also serves to reinforce our fragile sense of self. But these efforts are no longer necessary when we wake up because that sense of incompleteness and vulnerability no longer exists.
Awakening brings a shift away from accumulation to contribution. The energy that people invested to try to alleviate their own psychological suffering is now redirected to try to alleviate the sufferings of others. As Marcus aptly described one of the signs of spiritual awakening, there’s a shift in focus from “what I can get from life to what I can give to life.”
17. Autonomy: Living More Authentically
In the sleep state, most people are products of the environment they are born into. They tend to conform to the values of their cultures and happily go along with the kinds of lifestyles that are expected of them. But awakened individuals tend to experience symptoms of spiritual awakening in which they are more autonomous and inner-directed. They feel less identified with their culture’s values; they are likely to reject them in favor of following their own impulses. They have greater confidence in their choices and preferences, and are more liable (partly because of their inner security) to stand by them, even in the face of ridicule or hostility. They live their lives according to their own sense of what is right, rather than trying to please others or doing what is expected of them.
People often realize that, prior to spiritual awakening, they weren’t really living their own lives but largely just following social conventions or trying to please other people. But after awakening it becomes much more important for them to live authentically and follow their own impulses. Other people may see them as rebels or eccentrics because they’re liable to disregard social norms and trends. They’re likely to reject the consumerist and status-oriented values of their culture in favor of a life of simplicity. They have little interest in watching the latest popular television shows, acquiring the latest gadgets or goods, or trying to impress people with their appearance, their status, or their sophistication. Along with these spiritual awakening signs and symptoms, they may shock others with their unconventionality and their willingness to contradict consensus opinions.
18. Enhanced, More Authentic Relationships
In some cases, friends and relatives resent spiritually awake people’s new authentic way of living and misinterpret it as selfishness. This contributes to relationship problems that can occur after spiritual awakening. In general, though, awakened individuals feel that their relationships deepen and become more fulfilling. The authenticity of their lifestyle also expresses itself in more authentic relationships.
Relationships deepen for awakened people partly due to their increased empathy and compassion, which means that they become more tolerant and understanding and less judgmental. As a result of some degree of spiritual enlightenment, awakened individuals are less likely to react with hostility and animosity to others, and less likely to initiate conflict.
There’s certainly a connection between deeper relationships and inner security, too. If we’re insecure, our social interactions are usually self-centered. We’re concerned with making good impressions, saying the right things and behaving in the right ways. We often wear social masks to try to make ourselves seem more charming or interesting. But if we feel secure within ourselves, as spiritually awakened individuals do, this self-centeredness and role-playing falls away. We shift our focus away from ourselves and give our full attention to the people we’re with.