Have you had an experience of awakening to something that feels more real than ordinary reality? I remember the first time I heard Zen-inspired spiritual teacher Adyashanti refer to these moments as “gaps” in everyday awareness, when we stop focusing on our own mind and experience the world as it really is.
I’d had some of these expansive periods but felt a great letdown when I returned to ordinary reality. This is sometimes referred to as the “I get it! I lost it” phenomenon. It was relieving to hear Adyashanti describe these moments simply as windows through the dominant narrative. He explains that when we’re adamant about finding the truth, the gaps tend to get longer and more frequent. He also observes that what we find there isn’t usually what we expect it will be.
When the gaps run into each other and become our abiding reality, this is often referred to as spiritual awakening or enlightenment. It’s natural to imagine that something that sounds so grand and mystical must be a state unlike anything we’ve ever felt – maybe even a condition of perpetual ecstasy.
This makes it highly appealing to the ego, which often tries to take over the mission. It can easily turn spirituality into a competition and a source of identity and approval (“I’m woke AF!). And it may desperately hope that it’s finally found the thing that’s going to make us happy.
Happiness is a noble pursuit, but it’s not necessarily the same path that the question of “What am I really?” takes us on. Likewise, while I believe the “What am I?” path does eventually lead us to happiness – true, causeless happiness, in fact – there’s likely to be some unhappiness along the way, which is generated by the ego’s unwillingness to get out of the driver’s seat.
Spiritual awakening shrinks the ego to irrelevance, and this idea is about as scary as actually dying. The ego – the mental construct of personality, feelings, memories, and intellect that we’ve cultivated and reinforced since childhood – dominates our inner and outer experience of life, and in this way confuses us into believing that it is who we are. It’s been this way for so long that we may have forgotten what the unfiltered, egoless experiences (i.e., gaps) feel like. The ego isn’t malicious; it’s just trying to survive. But to the extent that we believe our ego is who we are, we’ll find it impossible to circumvent – because how could we get away from ourselves?
As of this writing, my ego is alive and well, and my gaps are fewer and farther between than I would prefer, but I’ve spent enough time cultivating gaps that I hope I can share something worthwhile. In my experience, though I have had moments of true ecstasy (while completely sober!), the most striking surprise is the incredible familiarity and closeness of the transcendent experience. I think this is what Adyashanti and other teachers are getting at when they say, “It’s not what the mind thinks it’s going to be.”
While we may imagine that spiritual awakening is like acquiring new powers, I believe it’s more of a remembering. It’s like having your head in one of those old-school arcade machines, gripping the joystick, munching pellets, running away from the ghosts, believing “this is what life is,” and then pulling back and taking in the true surroundings. The surroundings were always here, and so was the consciousness that the game wasn’t reality, but you were so immersed in it you forgot.
In one of these gap experiences I actually found myself saying out loud, “Ohhh! It’s THIS! It’s THIS!” The best I can explain it is that I suddenly noticed something that had always been in the background – always, always, always there for the entirety of my life, but so constant as to be disregarded. It wouldn’t call it mystical, but it was incredibly relieving.
Upon tuning in to it and recognizing it as part of myself, that “background” immediately expanded, rendering all of “Peter’s life stuff” relatively small and insignificant. In that state I remembered that I had previously been afraid that letting go of my “small self” would mean that I’d stop caring about my loved ones. But in this expanded awareness, I saw that this was just a fear my ego came up with, and if anything I was able to love people more completely than ever.
I wish I could say I stayed there forever, but my conditioning crept back in. I was able to see myself, little by little, choosing smaller points of view, picking up my phone for no good reason, and shrinking my field of awareness. But these experiences change us even if they’re not sustained forever. They give us a glimpse that’s not easily forgotten.
So, how do we remember? A good starting point is to ask yourself, What has been with me ALWAYS? Or, Who is that consciousness that has been watching my life, that has been there all along, never departing, even while my body grew and my life circumstances changed?
As Meister Eckhart wrote, “The eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me; my eye and God’s eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing, one love.” What happens when you try to see the one who’s doing the seeing? What happens when, as Adyashanti says, you “turn Awareness upon itself”?
Here’s to more and longer gaps. And feel free to share about your gap experiences in the comments section.