Awakening before Enlightenment

We hear the term ‘awakening’ thrown about today like a rag doll. And as is the case with almost all spiritual terminology, there seem to be levels and levels of meaning for the word ‘awakening.’ It is important to first recognize that we are not necessarily using a common language. When I see what the word ‘awakening’ is being used to point at, from the plethora of spiritual teachers that exists today, it is evident that it is being used to denote many different things.

And it is not just the spiritual teachers who use ‘awakening’ with different meanings; you can find references from the Enlightened Masters as well. There are times in the many books of Osho where he refers to ‘awakening’ as the final enlightenment, and sometimes he is pointing to a step that precedes enlightenment. I find the same situation in the works of J. Krishnamurti, Nisargadatta Maharaj, Ramana Maharshi, and Meher Baba. Although if one looks carefully at the context in which the words are being used, it is not as confusing as it seems.

However, in writing this I am not interested in repeating the words of those remarkable Enlightened Ones, but rather this understanding that I wish to share, is one that has been taking shape over the last twenty years and has only now become sufficiently stabilized that I feel willing to express openly.

Before we even begin to look at the different meanings we might ascribe to ‘awakening,’ let us first acknowledge that all individuals are moving through their awakening at a different pace. It is clear that we did not all begin at the same point. This is illustrated when we see that a sage like Ramana Maharshi realizes his enlightenment at the age of sixteen seemingly without effort. In contrast is the experience of Nisargadatta Maharaj in whom enlightenment happened much later in life. Some were prepared from their very childhood for such an event, and some worked through their own efforts at removing the obstacles to the ‘natural state.’ Some of us have lived a life centered in meditation from a young age, and some of us stumbled upon it much later in life perhaps after some major crisis turned our world upside down. So it is important to understand that just because we have not had a certain understanding does not mean that one of our fellow travelers has not. It is equally important to note that if we have experienced some insight or transformation, it is not likely that many will understand what we are talking about.

So let us begin with what each of us (at least anyone who is reading this) has probably experienced. For some of us it might have come like a bolt of lightning, for others it may have always been intuited as truth. And that is that life, the world, is appreciably different from what we were conditioned to believe. Many may describe this realization as an awakening and indeed it is. This awakening would demark the beginning of the journey. It would denote a tremendously important change of direction and priorities in one’s life.

Having changed direction in life, we embark on searching out information, knowledge, understanding, and perhaps a teacher to help guide us along the way. We may be fortunate and come across that guide early on or for some it may take many years. And some may not find the guide in whom trust is a natural and spontaneous flowering and so may just wander from teacher to teacher. Regardless, even without a guide, and certainly with one, it is possible, after an introduction to meditation, after reading the words of those who have known the greatest mystery, after the necessary inner work, to come to an “intellectual understanding” of the lay of the spiritual land. Jean Klein refers to it as a “geometric understanding.” One can almost visualize the obstacles that lie before. This understanding often can come as a flash and could certainly be described as an ‘awakening.’ But here, it is important to note that this intellectual understanding is not the same as being understanding, is not the same as knowingness; it is more like knowledge.

Next, we come to what seems to me to be more worthy of such a moniker as ‘awakening.’ This is when one realizes oneself to be out of the mind’s conditioning. The “goose is out.” Here one is being out of the mind and is able to see the mind clearly as an object of perception. It is not that the mind has disappeared, no, but one is not living within the mind. And it is here that witnessing really emerges. In fact, this is the witness. The mind is still present but one is not captive to its many grips. But it is important at this stage to allow witnessing its full force through meditation. It is here that the “emptying of consciousness” must take place. If one is not mindful, it is extremely easy to slip back into the clutches of the mind. But one is also able to see the horizon. One knows what needs to happen. One cannot make ‘it’ happen, but one does need to create the opportunity. With this awakening the taste is known and so it is natural that real earnestness arises.

For what follows, we will have to take the words and expressions of those who have known as a hypothesis. We accept the hypothesis and in our laboratory of meditation discover for ourselves if it is indeed true. The Enlightened Masters have all said that there does come a complete annihilation of the separate ego-mind, one that is irreversible, and surely it is ‘this’ that deserves the name “Enlightenment.”

So here we come to the point that has been the fuel for this inquiry all these years. Without exposure to the presence of an Enlightened Master, and unfortunately for some even with, it is very easy to believe that the “awakening of the witness” is the end of the journey, is itself enlightenment. Some fellow travelers might very well believe that there is no ending of the mind because that is the limitation of their own experience. They become teachers and this then becomes part of their teaching, thus misdirecting their students. Just as importantly their unfolding stagnates, believing that they have reached the end thus not allowing the space for the “emptying of consciousness” to take place. This is where the exposure to a fully enlightened master should prove extremely helpful. The master does not allow us to make our house in the sand. He continually goads us to keep on to the very end. May we all continue to the very end, Charaiveti, charaiveti (go on, go on to the very end).


This is from the collection of stories, essays, poems and insights that is compiled to form the book From Lemurs to Lamas: Confessions of a Bodhisattva. Order the book Here.

Here is a follow up post After Awakening Before Enlightenment.

See a related post The Seeing I.

Below I am including some links to a few postings that illustrate, much more deeply, what is being said.

A Geometrical Understanding-Jean Klein

Minor Explosions-Osho

The Stages of the Path-Meher Baba

Spiritual Snakes and Ladders-Osho

Attainment-Ramana Maharshi

The Emptying of Consciousness-J. Krishnamurti

Flowering, Awakening, Self-Realization and Enlightenment-Osho

Charaiveti, Charaiveti-Osho


The Stages of the Path – Meher Baba

All persons have to pass through the state of bondage, but this period of bondage is not to be looked upon as a meaningless episode in the evolution of life. One has to experience being caged if one is to appreciate freedom. If in the entire span of its life a fish has not come out of the water even once, it has no chance of appreciating the value of water. From its birth till its death it has lived only in water, and it is not in a position to understand what water really means to its being. But if it is taken out of water even for a moment, it longs for water and becomes qualified by that experience to appreciate the importance of water. In the same way, if life were constantly free and manifested no bondage, man would miss the real significance of freedom. To experience spiritual bondage and know intense desire to be free from it are both a preparation for the full enjoyment of the freedom that is to come.

As the fish that is taken out of the water longs to go back in the water, the aspirant who has perceived the goal longs to be united with God. In fact, the longing to go back to the source is present in each being from the very time that it is separated from the source by the veil of ignorance; but the being is unconscious of the longing till it, as an aspirant, enters the spiritual path. One can in a sense become accustomed to ignorance, just as a person in a train may get accustomed to the darkness of a tunnel when the train has been passing through it for some time. Even then there is a definite discomfort and a vague and undefinable sense of restlessness owing to the feeling that something is missing. This something is apprehended from the very beginning as being of tremendous significance. In the stages of dense ignorance, this something is often inadvertently identified with the variegated things of this mundane world.

When one’s experience of this world is sufficiently mature, however, the repeated disillusionments in life set one on the right track to discover what is missing. From that moment the individual seeks a reality that is deeper than changing forms. This moment might aptly be described as the first initiation of the aspirant. From the moment of initiation into the path, the longing to unite with the source from which he has been separated becomes articulate and intense. Just as the person in the tunnel longs for light all the more intensely after he sees a streak of light coming from the other end, the person who has had a glimpse of the goal longs to hasten toward it with all the speed he can command.

On the spiritual path there are six stations, the seventh station being the terminus, or the goal. Each intermediate station is, in its own way, a kind of imaginative anticipation of the goal. The veil that separates man from God consists of false imagination, and this veil has many folds. Before entering the path the person is shrouded in this veil of manifold imagination, with the result that he cannot even entertain the thought of being other than a separate, enclosed, finite individual. The ego-consciousness has crystallized out of the working of the manifold false imagination; and the conscious longing for union with God is the first shaking of the entire structure of the ego, which has been built during the period of the false working of imagination.

Traversing the spiritual path consists in undoing the results of the false working of imagination, or dropping several folds of the veil, which has created a sense of unassailable separateness and irredeemable isolation. Thus far, the person had clung firmly to the idea of his separate existence and secured it behind the formidable walls of thick ignorance, but from now on he enters into some kind of communication with the larger Reality. The more he communes with Reality, the thinner becomes the veil of ignorance. With the gradual wearing out of separateness and egoism, he gains an increasing sense of merging in the larger Reality.

The building up of a sense of separateness is a result of flights of imagination. Therefore the breaking through of the self-created sense of separateness and being united with Reality is secured through reversing the false working of imagination. The act of getting rid of imagination altogether may be compared with the act of awakening from deep sleep. The different stages in the process of ridding oneself of false imagination might be compared with the dreams that often serve as a bridge between deep sleep and full wakefulness. The process of getting rid of the manifold working of false imagination is gradual and has seven stages.

The shedding of one fold of the veil of imagination is decidedly an advance toward Light and Truth, but it does not amount to becoming one with Reality. It merely means renouncing the more false imagination in favor of the less false imagination. There are different degrees of falseness of imagination corresponding to the degrees of the sense of separateness constituted by ego-consciousness. Each stage in the process of ridding oneself of false imagination is a definite wearing out of the ego. But all intermediate stages on the path, until final realization of the Goal, consist in leaving one flight of imagination for another. They do not amount to cessation of imagination.

These flights of imagination do not bring about any real change in the true being of the Self as it is. What changes is not the Self but its idea of what it is. Suppose in a daydream or fantasy you imagine yourself to be in China while your body is actually in India. When the fantasy comes to an end, you realize that your body is actually not in China but in India. From the subjective point of view, this is like returning from China to India. In the same way, gradual non-identification with the body and progressive identification with the Oversoul is comparable to the actual traversing of the path, though in fact the different intermediate stages on the path are all equally creations of the play of imagination.

The six ascending stages are thus all within the domain of imagination. However at each stage, breaking down the sense of separateness and discovering a merging in the larger Reality are both so strong and clear that the person often has a pseudo sense of Realization. Just as when a person climbing a mountain comes upon a deep valley and is so fascinated by the sight of it that he forgets the real goal and believes for a time that he has arrived at his goal, the aspirant also mistakes the intermediate stages for the goal itself. But a person who is really in earnest about climbing the mountain realizes after a while that the valley has to be crossed, and the aspirant also realizes sooner or later that the intermediate stage has to be transcended. The pseudo sense of Realization that comes at the intermediate stages is like an individual dreaming that he has awakened from sleep although he is actually still asleep. After becoming awake he realizes that his first feeling of awakening was really a dream.

Each definite stage of advancement represents a state of consciousness, and advancement from one state of consciousness to another proceeds side by side with crossing the inner planes. Thus six intermediate planes and their states of consciousness have to be experienced before reaching the seventh plane, which is the end of the journey and where there is final realization of the God state. A plane is comparable to a railway station where a train halts for some time, and the state of consciousness is comparable to the movements of the passenger after getting down at the station.

After entering a new plane of consciousness, a person usually takes some time before he can freely function on that plane. As there is a radical change in the total conditions of mental life, the person experiences a sort of paralysis of mental activity known as samadhi. When the pilgrim enters a new plane, he merges into the plane before he can experience the state characteristic of that plane. Just as a pilgrim who is tired by the strain of a journey sometimes goes to sleep, consciousness-which has made the effort of ascending to a new plane-goes through a period of lowered mental activity comparable to sleep. However, samadhi is fundamentally different from sleep. A person is totally unconscious in sleep; whereas in samadhi he is conscious of bliss or light or power, although he is unconscious of his body and surroundings. After a period of comparative stillness, the mind begins to function on the new plane and experiences a state of consciousness that is utterly different from the state it has left behind.

When the aspirant enters a new plane, he is merged into it; and along with the slowing down of mental activity, he experiences a substantial diminution in the ego-life. This curtailment of the ego-life is different from the final annihilation of the ego, which takes place at the seventh plane. But like the final annihilation at the seventh plane, the different stages of the curtailment of the ego at the intermediate six planes deserve special mention owing to their relative importance. In the Sufi spiritual tradition, the final annihilation of the ego is described as Fana-Fillah. And the earlier samadhi of the six planes of duality have also been recognized as kinds of fana, since they also involve a partial annihilation of the ego.

Through all these fanas of ascending order there is a continuity of progression toward the final Fana-Fillah, and each has some special characteristic. When the pilgrim arrives at the first plane, he experiences his first fana, or minor annihilation of the ego. The pilgrim is temporarily lost to his limited individuality and experiences bliss. Many pilgrims thus merged think they have realized God and hence get stuck in the first plane. If the pilgrim keeps himself free from self-delusion or comes to realize that his attainment is really a transitional phase in his journey, he advances further on the spiritual path and arrives at the second plane.

The merging into the second plane is called fana-e-batili, or the annihilation of the false. The pilgrim is now absorbed in bliss and infinite light. Some think that they have attained the goal and get stranded in the second plane, but others who keep themselves free from self-delusion march onward and enter the third plane. The merging into the third plane is called fana-e-zahiri, or the annihilation of the apparent. Here the pilgrim loses all consciousness of his body and his world for days and experiences infinite power. Since he has no consciousness of the world, he has no occasion for the expression of this power. This is videh samadhi, or the state of divine coma. Consciousness is now completely withdrawn from the entire world.

If the pilgrim advances still further, he arrives at the fourth plane. The merging into the fourth plane is called fana-e-malakuti, or the annihilation leading toward freedom. The pilgrim experiences a peculiar state of consciousness at the fourth plane, since he now not only feels infinite power but also has plenty of occasion for the expression of that power. Further, he not only has occasion for the use of his powers but has a definite inclination to express them. If he falls prey to this temptation, he goes on expressing these powers and gets caught up in the alluring possibilities of the fourth plane. For this reason the fourth plane is one of the most difficult and dangerous to cross. The pilgrim is never spiritually safe, and his reversion is always possible until he has successfully crossed the fourth plane and arrived at the fifth.

The merging into the fifth plane is called fana-e-jabruti, or the annihilation of all desires. Here the incessant activity of the lower intellect comes to a standstill. The pilgrim does not think in the ordinary way, and yet he is indirectly a source of many inspiring thoughts. He sees, but not with the physical eyes. Mind speaks with mind, and there is neither worry nor doubt. He is now spiritually safe and beyond the possibility of a downfall; and yet many a pilgrim on this exalted plane finds it difficult to resist the delusion that he has attained Godhood. In his self-delusion he thinks and says, “I am God,” and believes himself to have arrived at the end of the spiritual path.

But if he moves on, he perceives his mistake and advances to the sixth plane. The merging into the sixth plane is called fana-e-mahabubi, or the annihilation of the self (lover) in the Beloved. Now the pilgrim sees God as directly and as clearly as an ordinary person sees the different things of this world. This continual perception and enjoyment of God does not suffer a break even for an instant. Yet the wayfarer does not become one with God, the Infinite.

If the pilgrim ascends to the seventh plane, he experiences the last merging, which is called Fana-Fillah, or the final annihilation of the self in God. Through this merging the pilgrim loses his separate existence and becomes permanently united with God. He is now one with God and experiences himself as being none other than God. This seventh plane Fana-Fillah is the terminus of the spiritual path, the goal of all search and endeavor. It is the Nirvikalpa state, which is characteristic of conscious Godhood. It is the only real awakening. The pilgrim has now reached the opposite shore of the vast ocean of imagination, and he realizes that this last Truth is the only Truth and that all the other stages on the path are entirely illusory. He has arrived at the final destination.

-Meher Baba

Taken from Discourses

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