by Steve Taylor
This article first appeared in Watkins Mind Body Spirit, issue 24.[dropcap]F[/dropcap]rom time to time, we all have moments when we feel completely and blissfully alive; moments when the world around us becomes more real and beautiful, when an atmosphere of harmony seems to pervade everything, when we feel one with nature and a feeling of intense well-being fills us. These are sometimes called spiritual experiences, or higher states of consciousness – but I prefer to call them ‘awakening experiences.’
I believe that normal human consciousness is a kind of ‘sleep’ which we wake up from in these moments. Most human beings are asleep in the sense that we normally perceive the world in an automatic way, so that a lot of time we don’t pay attention to our surroundings, and aren’t able to sense the is-ness and alive-ness of the world. We are asleep in the sense that we see all things as separate to each other, and experience ourselves as separate entities, as egos enclosed in our mental space with the rest of the world ‘out there.’ In sleep, life appears meaningless, and the universe can seem an indifferent and even hostile place.
But in my book Waking From Sleep, I suggest that this state of sleep is a psychological aberration, and it is natural and normal for us to be ‘awake.’ Many of the world’s indigenous peoples live in a state of wakefulness: they naturally possess(ed) a heightened perception, a sense of the aliveness of things and, an awareness of spirit-force pervading the world. Young children are naturally awake too. They see the world in a much more real and intense way than adults, experience a powerful natural well-being and often have intense spiritual experiences, where they become one with the world, or see it pervaded with an intense spiritual radiance.
As we grow into adults, we lose this natural wakefulness. This is due to the development of the ego. Our adult egos become too strong and powerful; they give us a strong sense of individuality and separateness, and so create a powerful barrier between us and the world. As a structure, and through their constant activity, they use up a massive amount of energy, leaving little energy available for us to put into perception, resulting in the automatic perception I described earlier. The development of the ego creates a ‘fall’ away from the natural wakefulness of children and indigenous peoples.
However, human beings have always sensed that their normal consciousness is limited and sought temporary awakening experiences. In Waking From Sleep, I examine the methods which we have used throughout history to induce the experiences: e.g. fasting, sleep deprivation, psychedelic drugs, meditation, nature, sex, sports and music. I also examine the paradox of how the experiences can be triggered by intense mental and emotional turmoil, and how the simple presence of an enlightened person can generate them.
I suggest that awakening experiences have two basic sources: they can be caused by a dramatic change to our normal physiology or brain chemistry (e.g. through fasting, sleep deprivation or drugs) or through what I call an ‘intensification and stilling of life-energy,’ through meditation, yoga, general relaxation, listening to music, etc.
If we know what causes them, we should be able to generate awakening experiences whenever we desire. But ultimately, we need to make wakefulness our normal state again. We can attain a permanent state of wakefulness by creating a new state of being in which our life-energy is permanently intensified and stilled. This means changing the structure of our psyche, so that the ego is no longer as powerful, and no longer monopolises our energy.
In Waking From Sleep, I suggest five essential practices which will change the structure of our psyche and create a state of permanent wakefulness: meditation, mindfulness, moderation, detachment and service.
We need to wake up for ourselves, to become free of the illusion of separation and of the psychological discord which fills our lives with suffering, and so that we can stop squandering our lives and our potential in discontent, anxiety and conflict. We need to wake up for the sake of the human race as a whole, in order to free ourselves from the social chaos and conflict which have blighted the last few thousand years of history. The only possibility the human race has of living in harmony – without warfare, inequality, and the oppression of women and different ethnic groups and social groups – is through transcending the over-developed ego which gives rise to conflict. We also need to wake up for the sake of the earth. The only sure way to avoid ecological catastrophe and learn to live in harmony with nature is to transcend our sense of separation to it, and become able to sense its alive-ness and sacredness.
Waking from Sleep: Why Awakening Experiences Occur and How to Make them Permanent
£8.99, Available from Watkins Books
Sign up for our newsletter to get our new articles on Mind, Body, Spirit straight to your inbox every second week of the month.