This may be the most important stage in the entire Journey to Awakening. It is the true beginning of the spiritual journey. It is where most seekers currently find themselves. It’s where true seeking begins. This is good news. If you find yourself here, you’ve turned the corner. Previously you lived entirely in a dream world created of thoughts. Your mind and these thoughts controlled and imprisoned you. They prevented you from experiencing the miracle of life as it really is. Now you are beginning the journey to freedom. You’re on your way.
Due to your diligent meditation practice, you’ve developed the ability to actually see your thoughts. You’re starting to realize that those thoughts, the voice in your head, which you previously thought was you, is not you. They’re just thoughts. That is a huge breakthrough. This realization is not permanent, not yet. You still feel that some thoughts – the really important thoughts – are you. You’ve still got some distance to travel. But you are definitely on your way. And that’s wonderful news.
There are many challenges at this stage. Your interests will change. Old ones will fall away and be replaced with new ones. You’ll start to question old beliefs and maybe even let them go. Old friendships will end and new ones will begin. It’s an exciting time with wonderful new insights and experiences. Your whole perception of life will begin to change. You may also experience the challenge of great fear as you feel the ego is dying and you are entering the Unknown. This fear comes entirely from resistance and the mind’s false beliefs, but it can feel very real. Through the recommended practices, you will be able to see the mind’s stories and separate the false from the real. In this way you will find freedom from fear and open to the wonderful freedom, peace, love and bliss of your True Self. The most common challenge you face will be the fluctuation between moments of great freedom and the return to the ordinary dream world you are beginning to leave.
Those Challenging Fluctuations
Fluctuations between moments of freedom and returning to the dream are very common at this stage. It may be one of the most common things you experience here. You will experience some profound insights and maybe even advanced states of consciousness, but these will not be permanent. You will fluctuate between brief experiences of freedom, peace or bliss and your normal previous experience of limitation and suffering. This back and forth, “I found it. I lost it.” will continue for some time. It can be very frustrating. We think we’re making great progress and then we think we’re making no progress at all or even going backwards.
Life seems anything but easy during these fluctuations. It is almost as if awakening has been presented to you suddenly only to be snatched away just as you were getting the hang of it. And what makes it even more challenging is now that you’ve had a moment of freedom, clarity, peace and bliss, the return to the old conditioned dream feels even worse by contrast. Before you had this moment of awakening, it was just normal life. Now you have directly experienced there is something better, much better. The contrast between the two states of consciousness can be very disturbing. You want desperately to return to the more awakened consciousness but you don’t know how.
These fluctuations are not easy, but it does get better. Part of moving to higher states of consciousness is that the awakened states last longer until they eventually become the dominant state. Relax. It’s all good. The fluctuations do end, perhaps not on your timetable or as soon as you would like them to. But they do end. Just stick it out. Keep doing your practices. At some point you will notice, without even thinking about it or expecting it, the awakened state has become dominant. Just do your practices and allow the awakening room to do what it needs to do.
The fluctuations are simply moments of freedom from your thoughts contrasting with the return of your attachment to those thoughts. It takes a while to move through this and transition to the next stage where fluctuations are less common. It’s not surprising. You’ve spent a lifetime absorbing, accepting, believing and reinforcing these thoughts. Undoing your attachment to these thoughts will take some time. And that’s what these practices will help you do. That’s what the foundation you develop here is for.
In this stage you become fascinated with spiritual books, teachings and teachers. Your library will quickly become filled. This is as it should be. You’re developing a foundation for what will come later. This foundation is extremely important. I have seen over the years that many people can experience higher states of consciousness when they are in sessions with me mostly through transmission. And yet, a few days later, they return to their attachment and identification with their conditioned thoughts. They do not remain in these states of higher consciousness. The reason is they have no foundation to support it. So developing this foundation is critical. As you collect different books and teachers, you will from time to time go astray. This is okay. It’s natural. You’ll get back on track. You can’t realize it yet, but something far beyond a personal self is guiding you. Nothing you do is really a mistake. It’s all useful for building this important foundation. Right now you’re like a sponge collecting every spiritual drop of water you can find.
As you began your meditation practice, you quickly saw that the inner world of thoughts may actually be even busier and noisier than the outer world. It can seem like a hive of bees. Thoughts seem to leap around randomly like monkeys swinging from branch to branch. The name for this is “monkey mind”. It’s disturbing to see how little control we have over our thoughts. Here we thought meditation was going to be a peaceful time free of thoughts, like swimming in a cosmic sea of bliss. Well, not quite yet. It’s called meditation practice because it takes practice. But as we develop a regular practice, the thoughts do seem to slow down. As we continue observing our thoughts, the attachment to them and identification with them slowly lessens. After awhile, thoughts no longer bother us as much. Occasionally one will still grab our attention, but we’ve become much better at directing our attention back to our breathing.
Here is a beautiful description of Hridaya Meditation (meditation on the Sacred Heart). This is another meditation practice you are ready for as soon as thoughts are no longer so distracting.
Meditation – Observing Thoughts
Continue observing your thoughts. Now observe your thoughts, not only during meditation but throughout the day. Notice especially how different thoughts affect your mood. If you are feeling disturbed, fearful, angry or unhappy, notice the thoughts that go along with and trigger these feelings. See if you can question the truth of that thought and let it go. Notice what happens when you do this. Notice how things change. Notice how you change.
It may still be hard to recognize your thoughts. But you definitely recognize your feelings, especially if they’re intense and uncomfortable. Instead of resisting and repressing these feelings as you used to, open up to them fully. Give them room to breath. If you don’t resist the feelings, the thoughts connected to them will eventually surface to your awareness. The good news, the totally wonderful news, is that if you don’t resist uncomfortable feelings and you become aware of the previously unconscious thoughts attached to them, they will dissolve simply through your awareness of them. Profound healing can occur simply from this awareness.
If your opinion about someone suddenly changes notice how that person suddenly seems to change too. If your opinion about the world changes, notice how the world suddenly seems to change. Thoughts are very powerful when we believe them. The less you identify with thoughts as reality and who you are, the less thoughts will control you and your life. This may not happen overnight. It takes practice to undo a lifetime of conditioning. You spent many years accepting, adopting, believing and reinforcing these thoughts. It will take a certain amount of time and practice to change those habits.
Continuing doing Byron Katie’s The Work with all your thoughts.
The Gap Between Two Thoughts
This is a very simple practice, but extremely powerful. As you have become aware of your thoughts for some time now, you may have noticed that they don’t actually stream continuously from one thought to the next, although it may seem so at first. There is a gap between the end of the last thought and the beginning of the next. This gap seems so small that you probably haven’t noticed it before. It is very important. See if you can become aware of this small space between two thoughts. There are no blaring trumpets or flashing neon lights here. It is silent and still. It’s not surprising you’ve never noticed it. But here you will discover an opening to something miraculous.
In the beginning you will just scratch the surface. The next thought will come so quickly you will barely notice this gap. That’s okay. It’s natural. Do it again. Keep doing it. Place all your attention on the space between the end of the last thought and the beginning of the next. You can try Eckhart Tolle’s technique of intentionally looking for the beginning of the next thought to make the space last a little longer. Then go back to putting your full attention on this space between thoughts. As you keep doing this for short moments, the gap will grow longer and you will experience it more deeply. When this happens, you will understand the amazing power of this very simple exercise.
Our thoughts act like a cloaking device that hides this incredible spacious freedom that we are. Bringing our full attention to the space between thoughts reveals this wonderful consciousness that has been hidden for so long, yet has always been right here.
Here are two videos that can help you experience this space.
Noting is a very simple but profound practice. You simply notice what you are experiencing in each moment and note it with a single word. If a sensation arises in the body, you simply say to yourself: “sensing”. If you notice a sound, you simply say: “hearing”. If a feeling arises, you say: “feeling”. If a thought arises, you simply say: “thinking”. This last is the most important and most challenging to work with. It is fairly easy to let go of attachments to sensations and perceptions and simply notice they are happening. Thinking is a little more challenging. We are so used to being pulled into our thoughts and following the unfolding story. Thoughts to us are like what a squirrel is to a dog. As soon as a thought occurs, we’re off chasing it. This practice of noting teaches us to stop that habitual thought chasing. We simply notice that a thought has arisen and say: “thinking”. We don’t get involved in the thought. After practicing this for awhile, we don’t even notice what the thought is about. We simply notice that a thought has arisen and we say: “thinking”. It is a wonderful practice to free ourselves from our attachment to thoughts.
This is a good time to begin a Self Inquiry practice. Since you have become aware of your thoughts, you now realize they are not you. So what are you? Previously you believed you were your thoughts about you. Now that belief is fading. So, if you’re not your thoughts, what are you? Whatever you can observe cannot be you. You are the observer. You are the subject. Everything you can observe must be the object of the observation. It cannot be the subject. It cannot be you. You are the subject that is observing.
You have already seen that you are not your thoughts because you can now observe them. Are you your body? You can observe your body too, so it cannot be you, the observer. How about your past, your experiences, your memories? All of these you can observe. How about your relationships or your various roles in life? You can observe these too.
In the Self Inquiry practice, we simply continue asking this question: “What am I?” After awhile, this practice becomes second nature and we find ourselves doing it throughout the day. “What is it that feels this?” “What is it that thinks this?” “What is it that reacted in this way?” The more continuous it becomes, the more time we put in, the more we benefit from it. Self Inquiry is a very important practice. It is a high level practice, but you can begin it at this stage.
Every answer that appears, let it go. Even if you feel you finally got it, “This is what I am.”, let it go. In the end, there is no answer to this question. So every answer will be a false and limited answer. The final answer cannot be answered with words or thoughts. Let all answers go and continue the question. This is a very powerful practice and can lead you all the way to full awakening. It has done this for many people. But if it leads you simply to this answer “I don’t know.”, it has already done a lot. If you end up answering “I don’t know.”, rest in this not knowing for awhile. We are so conditioned to want to know all the time that we don’t notice the enormous freedom in simply not knowing and being fine with it. This is a profound realization. And Self Inquiry can lead you right to it.
You may even begin to notice that when the mind doesn’t know, when it comes to the intellectual dead end of not knowing, there is this great feeling of space, freedom, silence and stillness. Because of our addiction to the mind, we are usually so quick to find an immediate answer that we move right past this great freedom without even noticing it’s here. That’s a shame. You can do better. Pause here in this not knowing for just a moment. Observe this space between thoughts. There is profound wisdom in this space beyond the limitations of the mind. Pay close attention.
In a real sense, self-inquiry is a spiritually induced form of wintertime. It’s not about looking for a right answer so much as stripping away and letting you see what is not necessary, what you can do without, what you are without your leaves. In human beings, we do not call these leaves. We call them ideas, concepts, attachments, and conditioning. All of this forms your identity. Wouldn’t it be terrible if the trees outside identified themselves by their leaves? These are very flimsy things to be attached to.
Inquiry is a way of inducing a spiritual winter in its most positive sense, stripping everything to its root, to its core. When we have allowed ourselves to be stripped and really enter into the interior winter, into all the leaves or thoughts falling out of the mind, then we may find ourselves falling backward into, as we say in Zen, who we were before our parents were born. This is a falling into the most essential root of being.
I think there is nothing we, as human beings, resist more than a spiritual winter. If humans did not resist the stripping away of their own identities and allowed themselves to experience wintertime, we would all be enlightened. If we just let wintertime dawn in us, there is a natural stripping away, more like a falling away. When you are very still and quiet, falling away happens naturally. If you are not trying to control anything, you feel certain thought patterns and energetic qualities falling away like leaves or snow falling; it’s a delicate falling. This is what spiritual inquiry is for.
Asking “Who am I?” is being present in the space of not-knowing and questioning all your beliefs and assumptions. The realization of eternal truth comes at the expense of all of your illusions.”
– Adyashanti, Emptiness Dancing
What Is Aware?
After doing Self-Inquiry and Noting for a while, you may notice that something is always aware of these objects of awareness. Something is aware of every thought, feeling, sensation and perception. Here is an obvious question most of us have never thought to ask: “What is aware of this?” “What is aware?” Awareness may be the subject we were looking for in Self Inquiry. But don’t be too quick to imagine you have found the answer or know what awareness is. What is this awareness itself? Can you even be aware of awareness itself? This is an important question if you are ready to deeply ask it. What is aware? What is awareness?
To find the answer to this question, you must feel into it. You must sink into it. You cannot hold awareness up in front of you like the other objects of awareness. You will not find the answer in any book or Google search. Thoughts, feelings, bodies, perceptions can all be held in front of awareness for awareness to be aware of them. But awareness is not like this. It is not an object of awareness. It is the subject that is aware. So how can you be aware of this? How can you be aware of the subject? How can you be aware of you? You are you, the subject. To be aware of you takes a different kind of awareness, a different kind of attention. It is not somewhere out there.
It is a letting go, a releasing. It is a releasing of even looking. It is not a mental knowing of something, but instead a mental Not Knowing. It is clearing the slate so something can be realized that is before all thoughts, before all knowledge. To be aware of you, you must simply be you. You must simply be. Awareness cannot be found by looking outside for an object called awareness. It isn’t there. It’s here. Right here. It’s the one who is looking. The way to turn your attention to the subject, awareness, you, is to stop looking at all and simply be. Let go of everything, because everything is the objects of awareness, and simply be. Here is where you will find awareness. Not as an object, but as the subject.
You may still be trying to understand this with your mind. This is your conditioned habitual way of understanding the world. This is what we have been trained to do all of our lives. Letting go of this habit is going to take some time and practice. But you can do it. Many of us have. If this practice of being Aware of Awareness seems frustrating at this time, don’t worry about it. Keep doing the other practices and try again a little later. Just be aware that you CAN do this. Awareness is here for all of us. It is never absent. It will always be here when you are ready to realize it.
Aware of Awareness
This aware of awareness or being awareness is a big breakthrough on the journey to awakening. In this stage it is still felt as a personal awareness. The sense of identification with a separate self is still so strong that we attach some identification even to awareness itself. “It’s my awareness. I’m aware of my awareness.” Still this is a big breakthrough because we’ve moved past the self as the body and the self as thoughts. You may even begin to realize that what is looking through your body when you see is awareness. When you hear, smell, taste or touch, awareness is always here and aware of this. To really experience this is a profound discovery.
Practice Self Inquiry Throughout the Day
Make Self Inquiry a natural part of your day. While washing dishes ask, “What is washing these dishes?” or “What is aware of these dishes?” “What is aware of the washing?” While folding laundry: “What is folding this laundry?” “What is aware of folding the laundry?” I like the “What is aware?” question better because once you have moved past a who or a what, you come to awareness itself. Awareness is the who and the what. So this question gets right to the point and keeps your focus on awareness rather than the imaginary personal self. If you’re still believing in and identifying with a personal self, a who, then stay with the “What” inquiry until that shifts. I prefer “What” to “Who” because who already indicates and sets an expectation for a person. “What” opens up the options.
Continue with Byron Katie’s The Work. Instead of doing it only with disturbing thoughts that cause you suffering, begin doing it with all thoughts. Are any thoughts really true? Keep working with this until you discover for yourself that no thought can be true. They are merely abstractions and interpretations of truth, but never truth itself. Seek truth itself, not merely thoughts about it. Seeking real truth above all else is the way to awakening. If you cannot find truth in any thought no matter how believable, where can you find it? This is a good question for inquiry. But first exhaust your belief in every thought. Through careful and honest questioning, you should discover that not a single one of your thoughts can be absolutely true. Relative truths are just that relative. Under different circumstances they are no longer true. Why settle for this. Look for truth that does not change, that cannot change and you will find it. Set your sights higher than you may have even dreamed of before. Don’t limit yourself any longer. You have been doing that for too long. You are awakening into something far beyond your wildest imagination.
Spiritual Practices Are Not About Adding Anything
As you can see in our practices, we’re stripping away thoughts, beliefs, and knowledge, not adding anything new to believe. We’re opening a space for truth itself to be realized without any thought or belief interpreting it, coming between it and you. We’re not looking for thoughts, beliefs or knowledge. These things can change over time. We’re looking for direct experience. And we’re looking for the direct experience of something that does not change, that has never changed. And since thoughts change, this has to be more than a thought.
All our practices are only to create an opening for this direct experience to arise. To create the space for this opening we need to remove what is standing in the way. And that’s exactly what these practices do.
The practices listed above and the resources below are not only for this stage. They are deep and profound, as are the affect they will have on you. You may have heard the expression “You get out what you put in.” The more time and attention you put into these practices and the resources below, the more you will get from them. A practice like Noting may seem so simple and even superficial at first. But the longer and more in depth you practice it, the more it will reveal what is far from superficial. These practices may begin here, but you can continue them for the rest of your life no matter what stage of awakening you are in. At the higher stages, the experience becomes increasingly more profound as you go deeper and deeper into the truth of your True Original Nature.
Here are six videos, available on this website, that will be very useful to you at this stage.
There are now literally hundreds of teachers at different levels of awakening that you have easy access to through the Internet. Even fifty years ago this could not even be imagined. But times have changed and so, thankfully, has human consciousness. Join this wave of human consciousness evolution. Awakening has never been easier in human history than it is now. Because of this enormous choice of teachers, you should choose the one or ones you resonate with most strongly. Do your research. You will be highly motivated in this stage to search, so do so.
Some teachers are fairly new to teaching or their awakening may not have stabilized or been as complete as other teachers. Some teachers, for various reasons, are stuck at certain levels of awakening. If the resonance you feel is very strong, this may not matter to you, at least at this stage. Your True Teacher, you have not yet found. This is the Inner Teacher, the True Teacher of all. Later you will discover that it has always been guiding you. For now it will simply appear in external forms, in teachers, books and teachings. This is good. This is just as it should be. This is also why this inner resonance is so important. If a teacher or a teaching, no matter how popular, just doesn’t FEEL right, pay attention to this feeling. This is your Inner Teacher’s guidance. At a later time in your journey it may feel completely right and resonate very strongly. But right now it doesn’t. Pay attention to this. Trust this guidance.
All good teachers will be pointing you to this True Inner Teacher. At first you may totally love and be devoted to this teacher. After all, they are unconditionally loving and giving themselves to you so completely and selflessly. It is rare to meet another human like this. A good teacher may accept this love at first because it helps lessen your attachment to your ego-self. But they will not encourage or accept your attachment to them. The pointing will always be back to you, just not to your ego self. The pointing is to your True Inner Teacher. Many students fall prey to attachment to the teacher, even with this pointing, and this delays their discovery of the True Inner Teacher. A skillful teacher will prevent this from happening. If a teacher encourages or accepts your attachment to them instead of pointing you back to your Inner Teacher, if the teaching is about them as the truth holder rather than truth itself, which nobody can hold or own, then serious problems will ensue. This is how cults develop. In your search of teachers, beware of this.
Here are some teachers, in addition to myself, I recommend. Remember you’re seeking now. At some point you want to settle in with one teacher for a period of time, sometimes for the rest of your life. This is the one you resonate with most strongly. It will be obvious when you find him or her. The Inner Teacher will show you through a powerful inner feeling of love and surrender. But right now you are searching for the best teacher, at least for this time, the one you resonate most strongly with. It’s possible there can be more than one. Until you find this teacher, there will be many while you are searching. This is good and appropriate. Finding a teacher is a very intimate thing, like a marriage. You don’t marry the first person you meet. And you don’t play the field for the rest of your life either. There is a middle ground.
The following are my recommendations for a few of the best teachers I know that are very accessible and appropriate for this stage. Any truly awakened teacher is useful at all stages, but some are more accessible and understandable for this early stage. Some teachers will not even accept students unless they are already at a higher stage of awakening.
Mooji is an awakened teacher who offers regular Satsangs (Meeting in Truth). Videos of his Satsangs are widely available for free on YouTube. He is very accessible. His teachings are simple and straightforward enough for you to understand at this stage, but are profound enough for you to realize ever more deeply as you continue on your inner journey. Mooji awakened in the lineage of Ramana Maharshi with Ramana’s student Papaji.
Here are a few of his most popular books.
White Fire: Spiritual insights and teachings of advaita zen master Mooji
Before I Am: The Direct Recognition of Truth
Breath of the Absolute
Mooji Satsang excerpt exploring the depths of Self Inquiry
The Zen Monk
A Guided Meditation
I would continue with her books and doing The Work.
Continue watching his videos on YouTube. The Power of Now will be making much more sense to you now.
Here is another book of practices to go along with the Power of Now.
Adyashanti has been teaching longer than many of the teachers you will find. He has a very deep understanding of the awakening process. A number of his students have awakened and are now teaching.
Gangaji is a spiritual teacher in the lineage of Ramana Maharshi. Like Mooji, the teacher she awakened with was Papaji, who discovered his awakening with Ramana Maharshi.
Link to Gangaji’s website
The Diamond In Your Pocket
Gina is a good friend of mine who has written several wonderful and very accessible books. I highly recommend them. I’m not saying this because she is a friend. These are very simple, straightforward and helpful. Like all good spiritual books, they can be read at any stage in the journey with deeper understanding of the truth they contain. But, unlike many books, they will be easily understandable to you at this stage too. This is the sign of a very good writer and teacher, which, as you will discover, Gina certainly is. A number of the books are available in digital form for free on her website. She also has two online courses available.
Nirmala is Gina’s husband and also a wonderful spiritual teacher. Nirmala also offers several of his books in digital form for free on his website.