Five characteristics of spiritual awakening (and one that really matters)

I’ve been re-reading a book called The Leap by Steve Taylor. I’m struck in a good way by the writing, in the introduction specifically, as well as in the first chapter, entitled “Falling Asleep, Longing to Awaken.” The wriiting is clear and concise, presenting difficult concepts (or at least, very different concepts, from a Western perspective) in a straightforward way. It comes across as simple and obvious. Readily understandable and relateable. It’s an interesting read for anyone interested in spirituality who has no attachment to a particular framework with which to interepret it. Or who wants to break free from a framework.

But I also find myself wanting to fine tune some things Taylor says in chapter two, where he addresses spiritual awakening in the context of different cultures. After describing what awakening looks like in various traditions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Judaism, and Christian mysticism, among others), he goes on to identify what he calls the core characteristics of awakening. A sort of summary of what awakening looks like, no matter the tradition in which it occurs. Five characteristics are identified.

The first is union. Union, according to Taylor, means “connecting with the spiritual essence of the universe, whether we call call it Brahman, the Dao, or God, and with the deepest part of ourselves.” The second is inner stillness. “Awakened individuals don’t have busy, chattering minds and aren’t assailed by turbulent emotions and desires.” The third is self-sufficiency. This pertains to the absence of desire for possessions or personal accomplishment, and an equal disregard for both praise or blame, while yet maintaining a high degree of compassion and altruism, which together are the fourth characteristic. The fifth and final is the relinquishing of personal agency, which Taylor describes as a loss of “the sense that you are directing your own life and following your own plans. Instead, your life becomes the expression of something that is greater than you, of a force that is flowing through you.” This force is later described as a “transformational energy [that] begins to flow through us and with which we can help heal the world.”

I agree with all of this, in its entirety. That said, I might alter the emphasis or reorder the characteristics in terms of their hierarchy. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that there is no need to logically or scientifically identify such characteristics of awakened individuals. This is a product of the author’s training as a psychologist in the Western academic world. In truth, there is only one characteristic that really matters. Any others are a by-product of it.

That one characteristic is the second listed: Inner Stillness.

I would suggest that the one factor that prevents the other four from manifesting is a noisy, over-active mind. When the mind is restless, when the intellect is recognized as being of primary importance (as it often is in modern society), when the bulk of our conscious energy is directed to cognitive functioning (which means less energy available for bodily awareness, emotional processing, or good old fashioned insight or intuition), the result is a spiritual numbness. When the mind is still, or better yet, when the mind is completely motionless and dissolved in its source, all barriers to the other four characteristics come crashing down, and each of them shine forth, unimpeded.

It seems almost magical to the Western intellect. It seems studiable. It seems like a great opportunity to categorize in crystal clear prose what is going on in such people, what makes them different.

But I’m here to tell you.. It’s much more simple than that. It’s simply what happens when the mind subsides. Studying awakening is a great way to prevent awakening. The more we use the mind, the more fuel it burns, and the more fuel it demands. We need to turn it off. Put it out of the way. Recognize its proper place as a tool, as a component. A part of the whole person, not the whole of our person.

Our biggest challenge as a society, at present, is also the thing that we take so much pride in, and place on such a high pedestal. Intellectual funtioning. Or rather, not intellectual functioning itself — which is of course not just useful, but necessary — but the primacy we place upon it. The energy we give to it. An energy that feeds conflict, and division. That feeds the notion that one of us is right, and one of us is wrong, and if we can’t agree, we need to fight.

If we could only still that engine, silence that motor. What we would find is that the peace such a silence brings is the peace that passeth all understanding.

Stillness of mind is what makes the other four characteristics real. Noticeable. They flow when the mind is still, like water flows downstream when not dammed. Unobstructed by mental restlessness, they pour forth. They become evident, obvious, clear, real, when the mind is not in the way.

The only spiritual practice necessary is whatever practice brings our mind to rest. To peace. When that happens, all else falls into place. Pours out. In a very beautiful way.

It’s not even spiritual. It’s natural. It’s the way of the world. It’s the way the mind works. And what happens when it steps aside.

7 thoughts on “Five characteristics of spiritual awakening (and one that really matters)

  1. Truly a helpful post. Thank you for sharing your read on Taylor. I will buy and gladly ingest his seemingly practical words. Your synopsis is appreciated.

  2. I can accept your argument Mike and like the notion of how it could help heal our divisions, the who is right and need to fight bit. Each of those “5 characteristics “ sounded familiar to me except for the fifth, which I really like. That one resonated most, maybe through the novelty of it. But I like that notion a lot, from the fifth one. I like the clarity and succinctness in your writing here too, feels like you put a lot of focus and thought into it. Cut hard like a diamond, yo’! Thanks for putting this up.

    1. Yessir, that #5 is a good one, though quite foreign to many of us growing up in a culture like this. One of my new favorite words is “unfold.” You can’t force a folded piece of paper to unfold in any other way than it wants to, else you’ll damage it. Same goes for forcing your way through the world, maybe. Thanks for reading and for the comment, Bill.

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