I’m going out on a limb with this topic and perhaps risking accusations—including from myself—of hubris. A long history of practice and study, however dubious at times in its effectiveness, has brought me to a place where I believe I know a little about whether one’s spiritual work is having the effects one would hope for; that is of course, waking up and all that implies. What follows is a series of observations based in large part on my own experience.
Part of my motivation for writing this has been the observation that spiritual practice in itself doesn’t necessarily transform people. In particular, I’ve been a little surprised to have encountered a very small minority of people with experience with sacred plants—or entheogens—such as ayahuasca, psilocybin, peyote, and others, who appear to be still in the grip of their self-importance. Similarly, in my experience with Tibetan Buddhism, some with many hours of meditation behind them don’t reliably comport themselves with humility and warm heart.
I intend this post to be a work in progress as my own awakening unfolds. I also invite readers to add their observations on the topic. My hope is that some of those observations would find their way into this discussion. So here’s my unfinished list of signs that one is making progress on the spiritual path.
1. Becoming less opinionated: When asked how he knew he’d experienced enlightenment, the Buddha is reputed to have said, “This solid earth is my witness.” It wasn’t about belief and we can assume he said it with a smile and without any need to browbeat the questioner into agreeing with him. Opinions are so often associated with ego, with ego’s need to solidify it’s hold by seeing itself as right or as superior, and typically by impressing this rightness upon others. I doubt that you need reminders about this but if you do ever feel the need, try tuning into one of those right-wing talk shows or foaming-at-the-mouth ‘news’ outlets in the U.S. A small dose of the likes of Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck will quickly refresh your memory of the hot, empty rhetoric blowing through the airwaves.
Of course there are plenty of issues to get hot over on this planet and I’m certainly not speaking against passionate and compassionate expression aimed at healing injustice and fighting against ill-considered ideas. The problem is that in the egoic state we have a need to believe that our view of the world is the correct one. This is how we think we’re protecting and maintaining ourselves. As we learn to relax into the ongoing stream of life, as we learn to trust in life, or you might say, trust in Spirit, the need to be right tends to diminish in intensity.
It’s been said that the competitive person doesn’t know himself. Competitiveness is of course deeply ingrained in the majority of us and not easily weeded out. I watch that feeling as it arises on occasion. The checkup we could give ourselves is to observe our state of mind/body and see if we’re getting tight as we engage in debate, disagree with someone else’s opinion, or try to convince others of our point of view. Of course arrogance and smugness are also obvious signs of a soul caught in the grip of opinionatedness. The irony is that far too often there’s an inverse relationship between the intensity of the opinion and its relationship to reality. In simple terms, there’s opinion and then there’s reality and opinions are typically a grid thrown over and obscuring reality. As W.B. Yeats wrote in his famous poem The Second Coming, ” . . . the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
2. Sense of humor: We’re not particularly talking about jokes and puns of course. My old Buddhist teacher spoke of the spiritual journey as one of gradually gaining a panoramic perspective. The opposite state of mind to that is what in the Buddhist community we used to call “going solid.” As we relax out of our struggle, maybe we start to see how funny our seriousness has been. Without callousness toward the struggles of others, we may also find their seriousness funny. Perhaps the great cosmic joke is that our oh-so-serious struggle wasn’t necessary at all.
As we loosen up we might begin to take greater delight in our world, in the moment to moment experience of moving through the material world. Humor and delight, or you might even say joy, are bosom buddies. Humor in this sense also means to be of good humor and if I’m not mistaken, the spiritual awakening that sees through obstacles and releases them inevitably brings an increase in good humor.
Relaxing into panoramic perspective allows you to see the humor in day to day encounters. Maybe you’re having a fight with your partner. You’re falling prey to the same old hooks and patterns. But then you catch yourself and relax on the spot. At that point you might say something that lets the air out of the beast for both of you, or just have a laugh at the absurdity of your games and sword fights.
3. Humility: See numbers 1 and 2 above. Less opinionated, more delight and humor, more humble—all close relatives. I notice it in association with a softness, the felt presence of my heart. When I feel that humbleness I notice I’m more present, more compassionate, not needing anything from situations. It’s as though you just become part of the stream, not self-absorbed in your own place in it. Buddhist teachings talk about forgetting the self and just being fully present in any situation.
In my experience, the increasingly frequent presence of humbleness is a good sign that you’re being “worked”—that your mind is being tamed, that you’re relaxing into Spirit. Humbleness is kind. I don’t know about you but I can usually read it in people. And I’m not talking about people putting themselves in small boxes of politeness and self-deprecation out of fear of offending, need for approval, or lack of self-esteem. I’m talking about people who no longer need to impress others, people who are coming from their hearts. When the heart awakens, that is automatically humbling. And almost ironically, humbleness is real power because it’s not conditional upon ego’s perceived success or dominance. A lot of energy gets wasted maintaining self-importance.
One of the observations that confirms for me the potential benefits of the plant medicines is that I’ve seen that quality in many who have worked with plants like ayahuasca and peyote for a long time. The plants ask you to surrender to something bigger than your ego. The softening of surrendering to that something opens the heart and helps put you into an authentic relationship with the world.
4. Spacious mind: See all of the above. The relaxing that comes with not struggling so fiercely against one’s demons, not needing to control oneself and attempt to control energies around one, and from allowing the heart to open, also allows the discursive mind to slow down. The Buddhist description of the discursive mind—confirmed in direct experience—is that it acts to avoid acknowledging anything that threatens ego’s illusion of a separate self and the survival package one has put together. The overlapping busyness of mind throws up an obscuring screen which keeps out the awareness of big mind and of the shadow material that needs to be released to allow relaxing into big mind. This discursive mind is ego’s primary tactic.
As you work through those obscurations and discover you don’t have to resist, you don’t have to keep patching the fissures in that wall, the need to fill the gaps with thought diminishes. A good sign that your practice is working, in the long term, is to find that you can drop the thinking mind more readily and just be empty in the now. If my experience is at all typical, I see that it comes and goes. Maybe you release some things and settle down. But then later some new layers of material start to bubble to the surface and at first you may fear being swamped by them. The mind becomes compulsively active. I see it as my job to observe the mind in action and when I notice it’s harder to allow the space I make the tentative assumption that there’s something I need to look at, or something that’s challenging me to open further. Times like that remind me to get my butt back on that meditation cushion more often and to work harder to allow more frequent gaps in the thinking mind in the “post-meditation” experience.
Landing on spacious mind also softens the boundaries between self and other. If you don’t need to defend yourself against perceived threats to the ego, you can relax and open your heart toward others, invite them in a little more. Chögyam Trungpa taught us to renounce, to let go of, anything that makes us less accessible to others.
5. Gratitude and appreciation. Yes, that’s right, see all of the above again. Does this seem too obvious? Perhaps it’s worth mentioning since I’ve noticed a gradual change in this regard in my own life. As my healing and awakening journey has progressed, I find that I’m generally able to appreciate things more. Life in general and in the particulars feels more precious to me than it used to.
Appreciation and gratitude go hand in hand with the opening of the heart. We find ourselves more easily touched by the world, more intimately related to the world. It’s also probably safe to say that a deepening relationship with the world would generally lead to a stronger desire to care for and help the world in some way. Buddhist teachings talk about the commitment to benefit all sentient beings. Of course we all have to find our own ways to do that. It need not be reduced to any simplistic notion of saving the world or a fixed program that says you must contribute to charities or teach in an African village. No doubt there are a great many ways to benefit, from the largest to the smallest and from the most direct to the least direct. The foundation is intention.
I also find soulfulness is more important to me than ever. With music for example, I have no time for music that lacks it, but I recognize and appreciate its presence when I hear it, even in the simplest of music. Similarly with people, like the humbleness mentioned earlier. When I see someone whose heart is open and soft, someone who exudes natural, authentic presence, I’m moved and inspired by that.
6. Becoming less judgemental: Carl Jung and others have done a pretty good job of nailing that one. Buddhist psychology has also made that issue clear with the concept of projection. I believe it was Jung who coined the term “the shadow.” The shadow is everything in our minds that is unconscious, repressed, undeveloped, and denied. One of the wonders of the human mind, a law of its functioning, is that the shadow material is unconsciously projected onto the world, onto others.
When you experience negative thoughts toward someone, what you could call a judgemental feeling, you can pretty much count on the fact that the shadow is at work. It’s anything but easy to see this and take responsibility for your own mind. Attitudes of blame and victimhood are central to this issue as well. But as you uncover that material through spiritual practice and healing work, it gradually loses it hold over you. As you see this material and accept yourself as you are, the projections tend to diminish.
Most of us humans, I think it’s safe to say, are making judgements much of the time and much of that judging takes place at a subliminal level where we may not even be aware we’re judging. Just to clarify, when I speak of judgement I don’t mean what I would call discriminating awareness. There are a great many more or less neutral discriminating judgements we need to make throughout our days and weeks. The problem with the kind of judgement being discussed here is, probably among other things, that it tends to block and numb energy. People who know a lot about how mind and energy function talk about how “it’s all energy.” When we can allow energy to move unobstructed and be awake to and in harmony with the flow of it, life itself flows much better. This is also not about being passive. Like, you don’t just stand there like a victim when someone in your space is running aggressive, manipulative, harmful gestalts. But foggy numbness and passivity aren’t the opposite of judgementalness. They’re the opposite perhaps of sharp mindful awareness and clear seeing.
7. Complaining less: See the discussion above on the shadow. Moving from projection, blame, and victimhood should be reflected in a general diminishment of the tendency to complain. At the very least you might find yourself complaining with a sense of humor. Complaining also carries that sense of struggle. You’re fighting with your world. You’re projecting your own dissatisfaction onto the world. In general, complaining tends to be self-justifying and ego aggrandizing.
Not to say that there aren’t things to bitch about. We’re surrounded by ignorance and lack of awareness every day and the machinations of the movers and shakers in such worlds as the political and the economic can provoke an understandable outrage. I think we just have to be on the watch for our outrage and our critiques not to be in service of ego justification.
8. A sharper bullshit detector: Having an effective bullshit detector is not necessarily a symptom of an awakening soul. Some pretty hard-assed and cruel people also can see through others. For many of us though, our own neuroses—our fears, naivety, lack of confidence and so on—tend to obscure our clear view of others. My old Buddhist teacher used to talk about egolessness of self and egolessness of other. It seems that as you learn to relax out of the struggle to maintain ego and land on the solid earth, you also see situations around you more clearly. The awakened heart is a very astute observer. It registers the authenticity of people and events. It feels the soulfulness quotient.
9. Seeing past “this” and “that”: This is another way of talking about some of the issues already addressed in this essay. It’s about letting go of control. We tend to spend a lot of time judging experiences and attempting to get everything happening the way we want it. The counterpart to that attitude, it should be clarified, is not passivity. It’s more a statement that you can fall into the flow and pattern of energy, appreciating things as they are and working with those energies. This is also about allowing ourselves to experience and even revel in the unknown. We can step out of our safe, habitual patterns. Life becomes a lot more interesting and enjoyable with that attitude. Everything is sacred world and surprises can occur at any moment. It’s also a big relief not to have to put so much energy into choosing one experience over another.
10. A sharper sense of feeling and a deepening compassion. I’m not talking here simply about emotions. Everyone is coming from somewhere along a continuum from having a habitual style that’s very emotional at one end of the scale to being almost completely unemotional at the other end. In Buddhist understanding, styles anywhere on this scale can be problematic. We’re talking about learning to relax out of one’s own solidity and habitual style to feel the world more deeply, more sharply. My old Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa used to speak of mixing joy and sadness together, of being touched by the world. This is about being able to feel things beyond yourself. Does that make sense?
The great good news is that feeling the world more vigorously and at more refined levels is actually completely natural to human beings. It’s not about adding something to who we are. It’s about releasing the obscurations, the mindstuff that creates veils of self-protecting numbness. It’s a relief, and encouragement, a joy even, to find oneself opening up like that, being touched by the world. It tends to give our lives meaning.