Some teachers say that awakening is not an experience. And yet, even some of these teachers who assert that awakening is not an experience may still use experiential terms in describing their awakening. What do they mean by saying awakening is not an experience?
I thought for some time that various teachers who emphasized the point that awakening is not an experience were just playing with words. I thought they were choosing to define the word “experience” differently for emphasis. And as I considered this, I came to see yet again how difficult words can be to describe awakening.
Even in describing what I have realized I find I usually only have language at my disposal that sounds experiential. There is so much glowing, effusive, flowery language in most religious and spiritual traditions that refer to awakening or enlightenment that it certainly sounds like they too are talking about an experience. How could one know bliss for example, without it being an experience? Or light without experience? Or love? Bliss, light or love are just a few examples of words used in descriptions of awakening. I know. These are words I use regularly.
Given the pervasive use of such descriptions across so many traditions and religions, it would seem one cannot deny that bliss, light or love must somehow be a part of awakening. Otherwise, it would call into question a rather large chunk of the teachings of sages, saints, gurus, etc. throughout the ages.
And, even the word awakening is a tricky one. There are many kinds of experiences people have that they call awakening. So before we can answer whether awakening is or is not an experience, we need to clarify what is meant by awakening.
If we examine and consider our normal experience, we perceive through a subject-object relationship, where “I” (the subject) perceives the object of perception (the object) through a process of perception. This is our ordinary experience. It is so familiar to us that we seldom think about it. But when as a result of an awakening we begin to realize a shift of our identity, a shift in who we think/feel/know we are, we cannot ignore the subject-object relationship because it changes. It changes because the subject has changed. There has been a shift of identity. “I,” the subject, is different now.
Such a shift of identity is a major change. In the spiritual journey, for many people, the first shift of identity may be when we realize that we seem to exist independently of our thoughts and feelings. This might be considered a clarification of the ego state where we discover more clearly that there is a “me” or a “sense of self” that we did not notice before. Subsequent awakenings lead to deeper, more comprehensive realizations of who we are.
It is important to understand that these shifts of identity are not based on our individual whims or fantasies. They often result in a change that establishes a new vantage point to all our experience. It can even be difficult to fully recall what were like before.
While this could sound a little frightening, it usually is not and often carries with it enhanced clarity, bliss, light, and love. This is why all the flowery language in describing awakening. But back to the original question, is awakening an experience?
“Technically” an experience relies on the perception of an object by a subject. Usually we think of an object as a thing in our environment, but it can also be a thought, a sensation or a feeling. Awakening is none of these. Awakening occurs on the side of the subject, not the object.
As we realize more deeply, more profoundly, who we really are, we find we ARE bliss, light, and love. It is not that we perceive bliss, light and love. We realize that our inherent nature, our identity, has certain qualities such as bliss, light and love.
What can be confusing is when bliss, light or love is also perceived. Objects of perception can be perceived to have these qualities too. We can feel bliss, light and love in our bodies and emotions. Our minds and bodies can be filled with light. But these are perceptions. They are not necessarily indicative of a shift in identity (awakening), though they may be.
It is useful on our spiritual journey to make a distinction between what we realize as inherent in who we are versus what we perceive in the objects of perception, in the environment or the world. At some point subject and object converge into pure subjectivity, Unity Consciousness, a profound state of consciousness, and a precursor to further unfoldment to the reality of ourselves and the Divine.