What Is Awakening?

In order to talk about how to become fearless, we need to talk about awakening.   Terms like “awakening” and “enlightnment” and “grace” mean so many different things to different people.   A friend of mine uses the terms “persistant nonsymbolic experience” and “fundamental wellbeing” to talk about the phenomenon, not because it’s particularly descriptive, but because everybody who’s in what my friend refers to as persistent nonsymbolic experience seems to be able to accept that as a description of what they are experiencing.

Even saying “the phenomenon” is a bit deceptive, because there are many different states that fall under the rubric of “awakening” or “fundamental wellbeing.”  What these states have in common is important, though: when you are in one of these states, there’s something important that you’ve stopped doing, for good.   Sort of.  (I’ll get to why I say “sort of” in a minute).

What is that thing?   Well, think of where we come from.   Human beings evolved in a dangerous world.  We inhabited places like the Serengeti, the jungle, places where there are things that have much bigger, sharper teeth and claws than we do, and that see us as food.  Not only that, but we lived in a world where there were no antibiotics, nor even bandages, nor an understanding of germ theory.   A deep wound could mean death, even if we escaped the jaguar.

And so a certain state of mind came with that: a state of hypervigilance.

There’s an interesting thing about hypervigilance: when you are in a genuinely dangerous situation, hypervigilance feels good.  It feels like you are doing exactly what you need to do.   You notice threats, they are real threats, you do what you have to do to avoid them, and you are satisfied.  I think this is why dangerous, and even seemingly dangerous, sports are so popular: your natural state of hypervigilance fits, and it feels good.   It’s almost a relief to be in danger.

But that’s now how things are in our world.  We don’t live in a world of lions, jaguars, poisonous snakes and septic wounds.   We live in a world that is generally very safe.  Sure, there are some things we need to avoid, like crossing the street against the light, but for the most part, there is no moment-to-moment danger.

But that hypervigilant state of mind is still there, trying to keep us alive, trying to identify threats.  And what makes it happiest is to find things to be afraid of, and bring them to the attention of the mind as a whole, so that the problem can be solved.  This is great, when it’s able to find problems that can be solved.

But we don’t live in that world.  We live in a very complicated world.   Our hypervigilant mind has two main kinds of problems it can find: problems we can’t solve, and problems that don’t exist.  Occasionally it finds a real problem, and we solve it, but this is the exception, not the rule.

Mostly what we find are problems that fall into one of two categories: not really a problem, or not a problem we can solve.   But the hypervigilant mind doesn’t care.   These are problems, and that mind’s job is to find problems, so it’s satisfied, and it dumps them in your lap.  And so you spend your day noticing problems.   Noticing what is wrong, whether you can do anything about it or not.  Ever had a night terror?   That was your hypervigilant mind, hearing a very subtle sound in your environment and extrapolating that it might be a snake or a jaguar, so you’d better wake up.   Ever been kept up thinking about an important interview tomorrow?   Your hypervigilant mind is helping out again!   What you really need is sleep, and so you can even worry about that!


So, what if the hypervigilant mind could go to sleep?  What would be left over would be fundamental wellbeing.

Fundamental wellbeing doesn’t mean that you don’t have problems.   It doesn’t even mean that you are no longer ever anxious.  What it means is that you don’t need to find problems.   When something comes up and you feel anxious, the response is to see if there’s something to do.   If there is, you do it.   If there isn’t, then you stop thinking about it, and the anxiety goes away.

People experience this in different ways, and describe it in different ways.   It’s not a state of denial.   When you are in a state of fundamental wellbeing, you can still see problems, where there are problems.   But there’s somehow more space, or the problems are taken less personally.   There’s a sense that even if there’s a problem right here, right now, in the grand scheme of things, it’s okay, things are going to be okay.


When people talk about awakening, they often talk about it in terms of amazing, profound experiences, psychedelic hypnagogia, perfect clarity, knowing The Truth.   These are all things that can happen in the process of awakening (although if you think you know The Truth, the one thing you can be sure of is that you are mistaken), but there is something very ordinary about the awakened state, and this is part of its beauty.

There’s an old saying in the Zen tradition: “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.  After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.”   This is pointing to that ordinariness.   We tend to imagine that awakening is a really big deal, and because it’s a really big deal, that it is out of reach.


So is awakening just ordinary?   If it is, why bother?   How much different could it be?   What it means to say it’s ordinary is not that it’s not different.   It is different.  It can be fairly different, or very different, depending on exactly what experience of awakening a person is having.  But even at its most ordinary, it’s a huge shift from the experience that most people have of life.

There is a bitter pain that we all carry.  It’s with us all the time.   We’re so used to it that we don’t notice it.   It’s so much with us that when the clouds part for a moment and the pain subsides, the experience is a kind of transcendent joy that, having experienced it, we always long to return to.   We think something was added, but actually something was taken away: that pain dropped for a moment, or an hour, or a day, and we felt what it was like to live life without fear.

So what drops?


There are actually quite a few things that can drop, not just one.   If you’ve read up on awakening at all, in any tradition, you’ll probably have encountered a map.   The maps vary between different traditions, even within religions that are ostensibly the same.   Buddhism has quite a few different maps.  Some sects of Christianity have very simple maps, some more complicated.

One way to look at this is in terms not of spiritual levels, but simply what a person is experiencing at various places on the map.   I have two models that I use extensively: the PNSE model taught by Jeffery Martin, and the Four Stages of Enlightenment model, which comes from the Buddhist Theravada tradition.

The PNSE model can be useful for figuring out how to engage: if I am feeling this way, what things do I need to be thinking about as I try to go about my ordinary life?   The Four Stages model is useful because it talks about what problems are dropped at each stage, and what problems remain.

When I say that I use these models, I mean that I think that they are descriptive of real experiences that awakened people have, and they are useful because of that.   But the way I use them is not the One True Way of using them, nor is it necessarily the way the people who described these models use them.


The PNSE model emerged out of research done by Jeffery Martin, a very smart guy who made a bunch of money in Silicon Valley and then decided to research happiness.   You can read about his research in his book, The Finders.   The very short summary is that he interviewed a lot of people who were believed by their own spiritual tradition to be awakened, or however their tradition described it.   He interviewed them not to learn about their path, but simply to learn what they were experiencing: how they experienced themselves, how they experienced their relationship to the world and the people in it, what emotions they felt, how they experienced agency, and a variety of other data.

What he found as a result of this was that most of these people landed in four different clusters of experience, which he calls “locations.” 

People who land in “location one” have fundamental well-being.   They still experience negative emotions, they can still get upset, but for the most part the bitter pain, the vale of tears, has been put down.   If they get cut off in traffic, they might even flip off the person who cut them off, but if they remember anything about the interaction thirty seconds later, it’s that they flipped someone off, not that that person was a jerk.   And they’ll be wondering how it happened, and whether it will happen next time.

People who land in location two can still have negative emotions, but they are fewer and less persistent when they arise.   But the big difference for people in location two is that they don’t experience a separate self.   This can manifest in several ways.

One experience, which is often described as the “unitive state” is a state of identification with everything.   This body is me, but that chair over there is also me.   The mountain off in the distance is me.   There is a deep sense of connection with everything.   It sounds weird, but people who experience it don’t act very differently.   They just experience their relationship to the world differently, and of course this colors how they interact with the world.

Another way this can be experienced is in non-identification: there just isn’t a feeling of identification.  This should not be confused with depersonalization. Depersonalization is a state of rejection: that is not me.  We normally tend to feel this way about things that aren’t our own body, so it’s a feeling with which most people are familiar, but depersonalization directs that same attitude toward the body and mind as well.

Non-identification, by contrast, is not a strong feeling that “I am not that,”, but rather the simple lack of a feeling that “I am that.”   This state is also probably familiar to you, because whenever you’re really deeply engaged in a task, there’s a tendency for the feeling of “me” to fall away.   A person who experiences non-identification is just in that state all the time.   You still interact perfectly normally with others.   One thing that can be quite nice about this state is that it’s possible to listen without needing to be someone.   So there’s no narrative going on as you are listening to the other person.   You are simply present, and you are hearing what they are saying.

In location three, negative emotions are mostly absent, and the main emotions that are experienced are joy and love.   A person who is in location three is generally very nice to be around, unless you are behaving in a way that they see as harmful to you or to others, in which case their love may appear to you as strong words or actions that feel harsh.   For a person in location three, the problems they face are that they can be a bit uncensored, and there can be a tendency to say “yes” too quickly: an important skill to develop is the ability to say “I’ll get back to you,” so that you have time to stop and think before committing to something that you’ll regret committing to.

In location four, all feelings of identification and agency drop.   Emotions drop as well, and this can be quite alarming at first.   People I’ve talked to who’ve been through this experience often report that emotions come back later, but they no longer have any feeling of attachment.   However, Jeffery seems to say that when emotions come back, this is another location.  Details on this from what Jeffery says are sketchy, so I’m basing what I’m saying here more on the experiences that have been reported to me by people have have experienced location four.

What it means for agency to drop is that what one experience is simply flow.   There are no decisions to be made.   Decisions happen.   What’s interesting about this is that people who’ve experienced this assume that their behavior will change, but it doesn’t.   They still make good decisions.   They just don’t feel like they are making the decisions.   They feel like the decisions are just flowing naturally.   What changes is that there is no fear, no resistance.


The Four Stages of Enlightenment model doesn’t really talk about the experience of each of the stages.   There’s a temptation to think that the four stages are equivalent to the four locations, but there are good reasons to think that they are not the same.   This is a topic that has seen a lot of discussion recently.

The four stages are characterized by changes in what are referred to as the Ten Fetters.   The Ten Fetters are the ten things that cause suffering.   As you can imagine, this is a gross oversimplification, and one constant in the discussion of these fetters is that nobody describes them in exactly the same way, unless they are reciting a definition and not talking about how they experience them, or what it was like for them to drop.   As soon as the discussion goes to experience, the descriptions diverge.   So bear that in mind as you read my description of them.

The first three fetters drop at the first stage of enlightenment.   These are the fetters of doubt, self-view and belief in rites and rituals.   Those terms are straight off the Wikipedia page, and they sound a bit dry, don’t they?   What they mean is kind of cool.

The fetter of doubt is the uncertainty that one has, before reaching the first stage, about whether awakening is even a thing.   Until you’ve experienced it, you don’t know.   It’s still a conjecture.   Maybe you hope.   Maybe someone you trust told you it was possible.   But you don’t know.   Afterwards, you know, because you’re experiencing it.

The fetter of self-view is often described very badly.  Think of it this way: all your life, if you are a normal person, you’ve taken certain things personally.   Exactly what you take personally varies from person to person, but examples include feeling insulted when somebody says something about you that you think isn’t true.   That little clutch in your chest when someone cuts you off in traffic, whether you flip them off or not.   The grudge that you hold toward that person in the office because they got the promotion that you should have gotten, even though it wasn’t up to them.   The feeling that you aren’t enough, that you should be a different way.

These are all examples of self-view.   When self-view drops, the experience varies, but the way I tend to describe it is that it’s like there was this little voodoo doll, and you thought it was you.   And so whenever someone stuck a pin in it, you felt like you had to defend it.   And now you see that it was just a voodoo doll.   Maybe it’d be better if people didn’t stick pins in it, but the fact is that it’s going to get pins stuck in it from time to time.   You might even feel the pain.   But the doll isn’t you.   You don’t have to take it personally.   If there’s something to do, you do it.   If there’s nothing to do, you forget about it.

The third one is kind of important, but a bit less obvious.   The belief in rites and rituals is a lot of things.   In a sense it’s doubt: rather than trusting to experience and practice, you imagine that whether or not you reach awakening depends on someone’s experience, or on how good a person you have been so far, or maybe you believe that it’s only possible for some people, but not for you, not in this life.   It can also take the form of a sense of certainty about what things are possible and what aren’t. This can take the form of thinking “it’s irrational to imagine that a person can be truly happy—that just isn’t the human condition.” Or “belief in awakening is unscientific.” This fetter is one of the biggest impediments to actually reaching awakening, and that’s why I mention it here.   It’s unfortunate that you have to get awakened for it to really drop, but it helps to know about it.


I’ll talk more about the problems of awakening in later chapters, as well as ways to awaken, but the point of this chapter was to give you an idea of the landscape.

Why should you care about all of this?   There are lots of reasons you might.   The most obvious is simply that if you can switch from the normal human experience into one of these awakened states, you should experience a significant increase in well-being.   That’s always nice.

But the reason I’m pitching this to you is the reason I mentioned in the foreward.   The state of hypervigilance doesn’t work anymore.   Rather than making the world a better place, it makes us freak out.   We chase around trying to solve problems we can’t solve, and we fight with each other about problems that aren’t really problems.  And we ignore our really big problems, because we’re too engrossed in the little problems, and we don’t want to see the big ones.   It’s really hard to face the big ones when we’re in a state of continuous existential angst, and so we don’t.  We busy our selves with our little problems, or our problems-that-we-can’t-really-solve, the ones that we satisfy ourselves with in ways that don’t make things better, and in some cases even make things worse.

What awakening offers is not an easy path.  Getting awakened requires that we dig deep, that we let go of things we’re quite attached to, that we radically re-think how we engage with life.   Even awakened people can still face away from problems rather than toward them.

But what awakening offers, if you really want to make the world a better place, is space.   Space to stop and think.   Space to notice what can be done.   An end to the need to feel the endorphin hit of a problem solved, even if it wasn’t an important problem.   The opportunity to engage in a dialog where you can just be present, where you can receive, and not just send.   Where you can talk to someone without identifying them by tribe, and without attachment to the tribe you may identify with.