Most of what we are told about awakening sounds like a sales pitch for enlightenment. In a sales pitch, we are told only the most positive aspects; we may even be told things that are not actually true. In the sales pitch for awakening, we are told that enlightenment is all about love and ecstasy, compassion and union, and a host of other positive experiences. It is often shrouded in fantastic stories, so we come to believe that awakening has to do with miracles and mystical powers. One of the most common sales pitches includes describing enlightenment as an experience of bliss. As a result, people think, “When I spiritually awaken, when I have union with God, I will enter into a state of constant ecstasy.” This is, of course, a deep misunderstanding of what awakening is.

There may be bliss with awakening, because it is actually a by-product of awakening, but it is not awakening itself. As long as we are chasing the byproducts of awakening, we will miss the real thing. This is a problem, because many spiritual practices attempt to reproduce the by-products of awakening without giving rise to the awakening itself. We can learn certain meditative techniques—chanting mantras or singing bhajans, for example—and certain positive experiences will be produced. The human consciousness is tremendously pliable, and by taking part in certain spiritual practices, techniques, and disciplines, you can indeed produce many of the by-products of awakening—states of bliss, openness, and so on. But what often happens is that you end up with only the byproducts of awakening, without the awakening itself.

Image © Michael S. Wertz
Image © Michael S. Wertz

It is important that we know what awakening is not, so that we no longer chase the by-products of awakening. We must give up the pursuit of positive emotional states through spiritual practice. The path of awakening is not about positive emotions. On the contrary, enlightenment may not be easy or positive at all. It is not easy to have our illusions crushed. It is not easy to let go of long-held perceptions. We may experience great resistance to seeing through even those illusions that cause us a great amount of pain.

This is something many people don’t know they’re signing up for when they start on a quest for spiritual awakening. As a teacher, one of the things that I find out about students relatively early on is whether they are interested in the real thing—do they really want the truth, or do they actually just want to feel better? Because the process of finding the truth may not be a process by which we feel increasingly better and better. It may be a process by which we look at things honestly, sincerely, truthfully, and that may or may not be an easy thing to do. 

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