What do we mean by spiritual awakening?

When I teach a class or retreat on spiritual awakening, as I did this past weekend, the first step is generally to clarify what we're talking about. After all, the term awakening can be used in so many different ways. For example, you can have a sexual awakening, or a political awakening, or a rude awakening, or you can use the term "spiritual awakening" to mean a range of experiences. Shamans can awaken to the spirit world, or Christians to the magnitude of God's love.

In the nondual wisdom tradition, which I teach, awakening refers to a radical, fundamental shift in the locus of your identity. After spending a lifetime identifying with a life history, a set of beliefs, a collection of interpersonal roles, a particular body-mind located in time and space, you suddenly realize that who you really is so much vaster and more all-inclusive. Paradoxically, you discover that you are both nothing--not the solid, separate someone you took yourself to be--and everything, that is, inseparable from the ground of being, the essence of what is.

Needless to say, when it is genuinely experienced rather than just conceptualized, this realization can be profoundly disorienting in the sense that it opens you to a completely new orientation and disrupts the ego/mind's presumption of being the center around which the universe revolves. At the same time, you are freed from the constraints that your story has imposed for a lifetime, free to be who you really are: this awake, aware ground of openness without a center n which the one you took yourself to be goes about her day.

None of the words I'm using, of course, really touches on the depths of this realization, which continues to reveal its mysteries as it ripens in your experience. The only way to understand spiritual awakening is to realize it for yourself.